Politics & Policy

Splendid Washington

(Reuters photo: Larry Downing)
Our nation’s capital is too rich.

If Donald Trump does surprise us all and bring his 24-carat-gold-plated toilet to Washington, he will not be alone in his taste for high living. Washingtonians may not do things in the cartoonish Trump mold — the faux frescoes on the ceiling and the gilt fake Louis XV chairs — but Washington is rich.

Really rich.

Chef Kwame Onwuachi has opened up a new spot in our nation’s hideous capital, Shaw Bijou, where dinner for two runs around $1,000 for a tasting menu and such treats as those described by Tom Sietsema in the Washington Post: “Picture jerk-marinated duck prosciutto with a ‘cigarette’ of crackling pastry containing La Tur cheese whipped with hazelnut oil, a nibble staged with dots of pineapple curd, borage blossoms and pesto powder for extra kicks.” One hopes that Tom Wolfe’s 85 years are not weighing on him too heavily — the Manhattan financiers from Bonfire of the Vanities has nothing on the capital gang.

That $1,000 may be shocking, but it is not out of bounds for very high-end restaurants. You’d pay the same for a similar meal at Le Bernardin, and perhaps a bit more at Per Se or the French Laundry — or a great deal more, if your taste in wine runs to the extraordinary: Last Christmas, 76 bottles of Domaine de La Romanée-Conti were stolen from the French Laundry, and the loss was priced at $300,000 — and that is not the most expensive bottle of wine on the list.

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New York has always been a place where almost any taste can be satisfied, at a price, and the Bay Area, driven by technology fortunes, offers all manner of expensive refinement, as indeed do most large U.S. cities. Some of that is boomtown vulgarity: In my home state, a flashy gold Rolex watch once was known as the “Texas Timex.” No doubt Ohio could produce some sort of eye-rolling, expense-account-busting excess, if anything were going on there, but there’s only so much you can do with an “economy based on LeBron James.”

Washington, though, is something else. It is now the nation’s leading consumer per capita of fine wines, and while the price of housing there hasn’t quite hit Manhattan and San Francisco levels, it is among the nation’s most expensive, far outpacing expensive California locales such as Los Angeles and San Diego and almost anything between the coasts.  

The District of Columbia, the wealthier precincts of which are disproportionately populated by young professionals not averse to taking the subway, is not an especially remarkable automotive market. But Virginia and Maryland, where those Millennial apparatchiks will move once they’re making real money, are fairly rarefied: One in five new vehicles sold in those states is from a luxury marque (about a third higher than the national average) with BMW leading the way, because D.C. is exactly that douchey, and Mercedes-Benz in second place. Aston-Martin is unusually popular in Virginia; Bentley sells unusually well in Maryland.

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We know what drives California’s lifestyles of the rich and famous: technology, and for that we are grateful, which is why people admired Steve Jobs even though he was as much of a hard-assed capitalist as Henry Ford or J. P. Morgan. We know what drives New York City, too: finance, to no small degree, but also advertising, publishing, media, and fashion. Maybe you do not admire those industries as much as you do Silicon Valley’s technology innovators: Nobody says you have to, but those Wall Street jerks and book-peddlers and fashionistas do perform a useful — and, indeed, irreplaceable — role in the modern economy. Miami is doing well, too, and we know what drives that economy, too — the DEA is no doubt on the case. (Kidding! But not entirely kidding.) Houston has an economy that makes sense when you understand it, and so do Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver.

What drives Washington?

#share#One thing that drives the capital and its environs is those very large federal paychecks, which now amount to about $90,000 a year in money wages and just under $125,000 a year in total compensation. Washington pay has long been above the national average, but it is pulling away. In 2000, the median compensation for an American worker at large was about 74 percent of the median compensation for a federal employee; today, the average working taxpayer makes only 55 percent of what the average federal tax-eater makes. Our would-be class warriors talk about “transfers of wealth” and “transfers of income” when they mean mere changes in those metrics, but in this case, there is a literal transfer, with the most fearsome agency of the federal government — our corrupt and politicized IRS — raiding our households and businesses to support $1,000-a-night La Tur habits in Washington.

Washington builds no iPhones. It doesn’t really build much of anything, and it doesn’t create any wealth — it just takes it.

I do not begrudge anybody his enjoyments, and I have a few of my own that no doubt seem overly indulgent to people who do not share my enthusiasms. This is America, and of course we have the best of everything: A gentleman I spoke with at the shooting range last week was firing a $15,000 rifle that cost about six bucks every time he pulled the trigger. I don’t think he was a multimillionaire, but he was driving a Ford F-150, so it could go either way. There are a lot of working guys with $25,000 motorcycles and young women who do not have the sorts of jobs and income that young women have on television shows for young women who are nonetheless wearing Prada boots or carrying Hermès bags. If they can afford them, great. It is not my business what they like, but it is my business to understand and appreciate that someone who is not fabulously wealthy gets to put food on the table and send his children to better schools because of the money he makes selling high-end shoes or motorcycles or .50-caliber rifle ammunition. The sale and service of luxury goods is a big part of how money gets spread around from the wealthy to ordinary workers. That’s what I like about Las Vegas: It is a giant machine for the transferal of money from people who have too many dollars or too little sense to a prospering middle class.

But Washington builds no iPhones. It doesn’t really build much of anything, and it doesn’t create any wealth — it just takes it. Government does useful things and, though the Elizabeth Warrens and “You Didn’t Build That!” gang make rather too much of it, decent, effective, liberal government is part of what makes modern capitalism the engine of prosperity and global cooperation it is, securing the civil peace, protecting property, and enforcing contracts. (Mostly.) It sometimes even does good work in helping to provide an educated work force and a decent transportation system for moving goods and materials around, though it probably isn’t really needed for those jobs, which could be left to free-market providers.

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The problem is that if you add up everything legitimate Washington does in the way of keeping the peace, securing property, and enforcing contracts, you can account for — if you’re really generous – maybe 20 percent of federal spending, which is the real measure of federal activity. The rest is straight-up transfer of income and wealth from one political constituency to another and a whole lot of Harry Reid cowboy-poetry festivals and research involving getting monkeys high on cocaine. All that money sloshing through the pipes creates conditions where it is easy — and irresistible — to siphon a little off, legally and or otherwise. And that is why you see Hill staffers who put in ten years at modestly-paid jobs and then go to work at lobby shops that pay them enough to drive a Bentley and live in one of those horrifying weird $3 million suburban piles in Arlington.

Trump got his money the respectable way: from his daddy. Mrs. Clinton got hers the Washington way: by renting access to political power. Talk that “drain the swamp” talk all you like, that isn’t changing without deep and wide-ranging reform that will require both presidential and, especially, congressional cojones of the sort not often enough found in Washington, where life is lived splendidly, for the moment.

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