August 4, 2013 3:23 pm

Americans have it wrong: Washington ain’t that bad

Critics on both left and right overlook the fact that DC’s gridlock reflects the electorate
Matt Kenyon illustration for Ed Luce column©Matt Kenyon

August is the month where Europe’s leaders traditionally vanish to the Mediterranean, and America’s head off to angry town hall meetings in their districts. There they idle their time avoiding abuse, rotten eggs and apologising for living in Washington. Judging by the ascending contempt the rest of the US has for its capital, this August may be no exception. This Town – as Mark Leibovich’s entertaining new book dubs Washington – has rarely been held in lower regard.

Yet, as anyone who has recently paid a visit to Brussels or Delhi or London or indeed Springfield, Illinois, could attest, things could be much worse than they are. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Washington is the worst capital in the world apart from most of the others. Here are five reasons to pause before making your next ritual condemnation of the US capital.

First, Washington’s chronic dysfunction can be surprisingly functional. The US performed better than most other western countries in staving off the 2008 meltdown and handling its aftermath. Admittedly, this is a pretty low bar. The UK plunged itself into an ill-timed programme of austerity. Most of Europe is grappling with the consequences of an unworkable single currency. Among wealthy countries, only Canada and Australia have fared better than the US. Good for them – although if you want to lose your appetite for life, try moving to Ottawa or Canberra.

Among the large economies with a sovereign currency, the US stands alone in having pulled the right fiscal and monetary levers after the meltdown. It was not a pretty sight – and the US Federal Reserve’s programme of quantitative easing continues to enrich the undeserving class of rentier capitalists. But it is a great deal less ugly than the alternatives – for which, see Madrid, Athens, Rome and Lisbon. In short, the US system worked when it mattered even if it fails the rest of the time. A small caveat: Washington was also a principal author of the financial crisis. But, hey, nobody’s perfect.

Second, unlike New York or San Francisco, which are endlessly self-regarding, Washington at least has the decency to apologise for itself. To be sure, America’s political leaders are constantly congratulating themselves and their fellow citizens for having been born American. And Washington is chock-a-block with self-described “thought leaders” who never had an original idea in their life. All of this can be very annoying. But Washingtonians are happy to talk down the city where they make their living. If hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue, Washington is highly complimentary.

Contrast Washington’s self-doubt with the self-belief found on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. Even the most deluded US lawmaker would think twice before claiming to be doing “God’s work”, as Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, said in 2009. Nor have I heard anyone in Washington echo Google’s outdated “Don’t be Evil” logo. There are worse mottos than Washington’s unofficial one: “I seriously apologise for being here.”

Third, Washington may be teeming with carpetbaggers, but it is also home to some of the brightest people in the US. Most of them will never see a stock option in their life. Mr Leibovich rightly focuses on the frenetic revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street – home to the city’s plush lobby groups. And he calls attention to the regulatory capture This Town epitomises – namely a federal tax code that is written for, and often by, the rich. But Washington is also home to the most impressive collection of think-tanks in the world. For the most part, they are staffed by people who are genuinely interested in public policy. Few of them will get rich. Many are experts in their fields.

Fourth, Washington is surprisingly progressive. Some time in the next few weeks, President Barack Obama, an African-American, will select the next head of the Fed from a probable short list of three that comprises a woman, Janet Yellen; a Jew, Lawrence Summers; and an African-American, Roger Ferguson. Not to mention the nine-member Supreme Court, which now includes three women and no Protestants. The current frontrunner to be the next president is also a woman. There is a lot wrong with Washington – I spend a lot of my time writing about it. But it gets some things right, too.

Finally, Washington is no worse or better than the country it represents. Among libertarians on the right, it stands for everything that is wrong with the US – a town that trades inside knowledge for self-enrichment. Among liberals, Washington is seen as a wholly-owned subsidiary of big finance/oil/data and so on. Both capture an element of truth. But they are also caricatures. And they overlook the fact that DC’s gridlock reflects the country that elects it.

Most US voters say they want to cut federal budgets in general. But they make exceptions for all the specific items that benefit them. Most voters want to curb global warming. But they will not pay higher electricity bills. And most US voters say they want government to get out of their lives. But woe betide any president who allows terrorism on his watch. In short, like most of the rest of us, the US electorate is a bundle of contradictions. Washington is its mirror. “Everyone hates Congress, everyone hates the media, everyone hates Washington,” said Barney Frank, the recently retired lawmaker from Massachusetts. “But let me tell you something, the voters are no picnic either.”

edward.luce@ft.com

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Letter in response to this column:

Washington lacks the pedigree of an all-American city / From Mr Harvey Clark Greisman

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