The Great Power of Washington

What D.C. tells us about Obama and America.

The sun has set, the shadows crawling up and down the grid of America’s first truly planned city. There was a time when it was thought that the Potomac extended across the continent and the city of government would lie at the intersection of an interstate aquatic highway. That was not to be. And like so many other dreams of government, the Washington City Canal has seen better days.

Washington D.C. is America, as many of the men and women who work in government envision it. It is a place of great wealth and great poverty. Incomes continue to rise for those in government. D.C. and its bedroom communities hold some of the greatest reserves of wealth in the country, but its poverty level hovers just below 20 percent. And nearly a third of the children of the capital of our government live in poverty.

Gun control is very much on the minds of the government elite these days, and it should be, working in a city with a higher murder rate than Mexico City. African-Americans only make up half the population of D.C. but black males account for 80 percent of its homicide victims. The black murder rate in D.C. is 37.7 per 100,000 people. The white murder rate however is less than most of the rest of the country. Guns are used in the vast majority of these killings.

1 in 8 households in D.C. struggle with hunger. D.C. public schools have a 56 percent graduation rate for students in general and 41 percent for black males. This is what the city that runs the country that runs the world looks like. This is where the great planners make their plans while just out of sight lies another great urban failure where plans go to die.

Washington, D.C. cannot fix itself. The national government based out of the city certainly cannot fix the nation. There are two Washingtons here side by side. One is the Washington of the professional government technocracy; the imperial Washington of ceremony and ritual, where massive numbers of staffers and bureaucrats pack in to attend to the great grid of the nation. The other Washington is no different than Chicago or Detroit, except that its only dying industry is the great machine of government.

These same two visions haunt the modern urban center and its shaky coalition between the government worker and the government welfare case. Here the white collar professional can reach the peak of his career while embedded deep in the bureaucratic trenches of the war on poverty in a city where poverty is an abiding reality. Here men and women can have full-time careers pretending to solve the unsolvable problems of a nation.

The bureaucracy takes 90 percent of the funds for the war on poverty and the poor get the other 10 percent, along with an invitation to protest and demand more money. This is Washington, where annual trillion dollar deficits are the new normal, but it’s also Albany, Providence and Sacramento. This is the way that the best and brightest have run the modern city and the modern country into the ground.

This urban coalition between professional poverty warriors and the professional poor is a perversion of the original vision of the reformers who sought to break away from the shameless exploitation of human misery by Democratic political machines. These reformers, many of them Republicans, tried to replace permanent misery with meaningful solutions. Along the way they became a technocracy, a professional class, in and out of government, fossilized reformers whose institutions are most in need of reform. The reformers who battled the old Democratic political machine became the new Democratic political machine.

With Obama’s victory in two elections, that coalition is the new national power. The urban political machine has managed to do what it was only able to do only twice before in the 20th Century with JFK and FDR. Its empty visions and emptier phrases, its constituency of the perpetually oppressed and its bureaucracy, whose bread and butter is human misery, is once again the plan of the planners who are always making new charts and diagrams, and writing up new policy proposals that will finally lick poverty for good.

When the urban technocracy succeeds in getting its way, as it did with sterile blocks of housing towers or running highway systems through major cities, then the affected portion of the city often dies, forming into an ugly clot around the infection. Urban technocracies have left such clots in most major cities and the national technocracy under FDR and JFK/LBJ made its own clots that led to race riots and mass poverty.

The urban technocracy has ruined most of the country’s major cities. Now it is doing to the city what it did to the country. And the sight of all that misery cannot dissuade it from its confidence in its own cleverness. Its second victory has only persuaded it of its own genius, a feeling that pervades the ranks of Obama Inc. from the amateur Chicago politician at the top, down to his cronies all of whom are now more convinced than ever before that they cannot fail.

It is that sense of infallibility that is most identified with the technocracy and the new liberalism that has been remade in its image. It is a glibness born out of excessive self-esteem and self-assurance that launches billion dollar companies with no business plan and authorizes projects on an impulse without truly understanding them. That same sense of cleverness leads the technocracy to spend trillions of dollars without being concerned whether that money will ever be repaid.

The urban technocracy does not care for people, it cares for ideas, and it often confuses its embrace of an ideal society with a concern for people without ever realizing that the two are not at all the same thing. Ideas are how the technocracy reinforces its assessment of its own cleverness. And those ideas have as much to do with people, as the towering housing blocks that were supposed to be the ideal residences of the future have to do with how people actually live.

Washington D.C. is a place where even the best of men can forget their limits. The possession of power causes men to think of themselves as omnipotent, forgetting that the ability to pass laws is not the effectiveness of their intent, that the power to print money is not the creation of value and that the thing you will in a government chamber is not the same as its outcome in the living rooms of the nation.

The one thing that Washington D.C. has never understood is that it does not run America. A government can issue decrees and punish those who disobey. What it cannot do however is implement a policy in such a way that its execution exactly matches the intention. The whip cracks, the people veer and the law of unintended consequences takes over.

Obama has already rejected any constitutional or legal limitations on his power, and he imagines that there is no barrier between his will, the law and the world. But in the more dangerous streets of D.C., when the shadows fall and evening begins, where drugs are sold and lives are taken, there are reminders that no plan can truly control people and that the power of emperors, kings and presidents is a fleeting thing in the night.

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