Last week, an essay in a The Washington Post Magazine got my attention by asking an interesting question: Has Greater Washington become too cool to be the nation’s capital?
The essay used “cool” to describe a city with great apartments, trendy bars and modern condos that attracts and retains young talented workers but, in the process, replaces unglamorous but needed local businesses and changes neighborhoods. The essay argued that by working in a cool place our national government policy makers and workers are unable to empathize with Americans who don’t live in cool places and vice versa.
The essay suggests redistributing government workers across the country as a solution to the perceived “coolness problem.” I agree that our government should be more responsive to its citizens, but the suggestion that the solution is to deprive our local economy of one of its economic advantages is not something that I can accept. Let me explain why.
That solution — a legislated step toward equalizing regional incomes by distributing government spending around the nation — shows how this is really a conversation about economic development, focusing on how a region approaches issues of opportunity and fairness. The reality is that market forces determine whether a region becomes cool and how long its cool factor lasts. In a market-based economy, once people satisfy their basic requirements, those with discretionary income spend it on things that they enjoy. If a region creates high-paying jobs that attract highly educated knowledge workers, communities necessarily change to satisfy their tastes and expectations. Their higher salaries do drive housing costs upward and change the composition of neighborhoods. By competing for workers on a national scale, we do create the conditions for coolness and displacement to occur.
Speaking specifically about our region, let’s be clear that there are many likely reasons why the national government is becoming less connected with its citizens. I hear many more experts blame the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and the weakening of our party system for giving a small number of wealthy families disproportionate influence on politics than those that blame gentrification. I also hear often that gerrymandering gives rise to political extremism, since candidates no longer worry about the general election, where they would have to appeal to a broad range of voters.
Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that coolness reflects underlying economic conditions that should be identified and addressed: What role should questions of economic fairness have in a market-based economy? Should economic development be based on winner-take-all thinking or on a system that leaves something for others? That’s really what any conversation about coolness and gentrification is about.
This is a hard conversation to have. As tempting as it may be sometimes, winners can’t just spike the football and gloat. There must be room for acknowledgement of others. Unless the winners take the time to create a broader shared stake in our communities, they will create social instability and resentment among whoever ends up on the losing end. Anyone who cares about the benefits of a market-based economy should be paying close attention to this. It’s great to be cool, but it’s smart to also be kind.
Distributing the federal government around the nation into smaller pockets won’t make it any more responsive to its people. Let’s be clear. The issue of coolness is not limited to our region, nor will it disappear in any place where there are market-based determinations of how resources and opportunities are allocated. Instead of running from the problem, let’s meet it head on.
Years ago, D.C. was established with a belief that it should be a different place — an exemplar for the nation of how to grow and manage a capital city. This is just as true today.
Creating connections and balancing cool with the commonplace is a goal that every region of the country should have, whether it’s the nation’s political capital or not. But here in our region we have a unique opportunity, because we are the nation’s capital, to provide leadership and an example of how you can be cool and kind.
It’s not our region’s proximity to the national government that makes this important. It’s our responsibility as citizens.