Visions of glory

Joel Kotkin writes in the Washington Post that DC has finally become the capital of the world; that the “imperial Presidency” has stopped becoming a figure of speech and has now become literal reality. The current economic crisis has given DC the excuse to call the shots, not only in rival domestic centers of power, but in foreign capitals now beset by collapse. It’s growth in power has been evergreen: the one place on earth that prospers both in good times and in bad. But especially in bad.


It would take enormous misfortune — the Depression — to provide Washington with its first great growth spurt. As the business empires of New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland buckled and the New Deal took control of the economy, power shifted decisively to the capital. This expansion of influence continued with the onset of World War II and then during the Cold War.

The ensuing rise of the military and domestic bureaucracies transformed Washington from a small provincial city into a major metropolitan area. The greater economic shift from a predominantly manufacturing to a high-tech, information-centered economy also played to Washington’s strengths. In his groundbreaking 1973 book, “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society,” the sociologist Daniel Bell predicted that the country’s prevailing “business civilization” would inevitably become dominated by the government bureaucracy. Corporations would eventually look to Washington’s lead for regulatory standards, to sponsor research and make critical science-related decisions. …

Even industries that are well plugged in to the new Obama regime — such as venture capital and alternative energy — are facing financial ruin from the downturn in both markets and energy prices. To win new funding and subsidies for their next bubble, they’ll increasingly rely not on their ballyhooed cleverness but on their pull with the White House, Congress and the new science apparat, under the green-oriented Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Obama’s neo-Malthusian pick for White House science adviser, physicist John Holdren. …

Over time, those of us in the provinces may grow to resent all this, seeing in Washington’s ascendancy something obtrusive, oppressive and contrary to the national ethos. But don’t expect Washingtonians to care much. They’ll be too busy running the country, when not chortling all the way to the bank.


But Kotkin’s view may ironically be too provincial. From further afield, the new Washington may more closely resemble a growing parasite on a dying host. Some in Japan are asking whether the United States is still able to perform its role as a security guarantor. The flip-side to Washington’s obsession with itself will be its growing inability to perceive external reality. Obama may give a good speech, but whether his golden voice will stop an inbound North Korean missile or counterbalance China is a question that can only seriously be debated in DC. Everyone else will probably know the answer is “no”.

It is this narcissism which may eventually prove to be the bureaucracy’s undoing. It may know less than it pretends to. Aziz Poonawalla wonders why Obama seems unaware of the genocide in East Timor when he holds up his experience of life in Indonesia as a qualification for office. (Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds)

Gary Farber sounded the alarm last month about President Obama’s nominee for National Intelligence Director, Denis Blair, who was complicit in genocide in East Timor during the Clinton Administration.  … If Obama, who has lived in Indonesia (a fact he trumpets), is unaware of the history of the genocide in East Timor, then that’s quite an embarrassment, but it can be fixed, starting with replacing Blair as nominee for top spy.

Now maybe it is unfair to hold Denis Blair responsible for the policies of his boss, Bill Clinton. Or perhaps the question about Timor should more properly be put to Hillary, who will after all become Secretary of State. But Timor is small and far away. Gaza is bigger, isn’t it? Nobody is expected to be aware of its existence in the ultimate center of things. Perhaps even Japan may escape notice for a while. Which highlights the main difficulty with Kotkin’s belief the efficacy of centralization. Maybe the problem with trying to be the Capital of the World with one’s vision circumscribed by the Beltway, or at least by Chicago, is that of sight being exceeded by grasp.



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