Sunday, April 28, 2013

Is Paul Waldman the worst journalist on Earth?

Before I get too far into this, I should be up front about a couple of things. Yes, this is a blog ostensibly about the North Bethesda/Rockville area of Montgomery County, Maryland. It's not about DC, although being just outside of DC the two are of course very closely related. Also, the foci of this blog are to inform people about what is happening in this pocket of Montgomery County, and to occasionally advocate for thoughtful and sensible policies and development that will (hopefully) make this area a more enjoyable place to live.

With that said, having lived in (and maintained a blog in) DC for a number of years, I remain one of its most ardent defenders. There's a lot about the city that rubs me the wrong way, and a lot of things I'd like to see changed. But I remain a fiercely loyal advocate of the city and its residents, and if you come at DC, you'd better come armed with more than a bunch of lazy maxims and outdated and disproved cliches.

Which brings me to Paul Waldman.

Mr. Waldman is a contributor to, among other outlets, The American Prospect, for whom he recently penned an article called "Is Washington the Worst Place on Earth?" You could argue that with such a blatantly inflammatory headline, the piece is designed to be an over-the-top dollop of absurdity not meant to be taken seriously. And perhaps that is the case. But, having wasted several valuable minutes of my life reading it, two things struck me about the piece.

For one, his framing of the piece not as a straight-up argument based upon a thesis, but rather as a gosh-I-don't-know question, is irksome. Is Washington the worst place on Earth? "I'm not saying this is the case," Mr. Waldman seems to imply. "I'm just asking the question." He's not saying Washington is the worst place on Earth, don't you see? He's only repeating what he's heard others say, and approaching the question with a golly-gosh naivete as he kicks around some possible reasons people might say that. Shucky darn.

Secondly, and the reason I'm even bothering to write this, the reasons he puts forth as to to why Washington might be considered by some (but not necessarily by him!) the worst place on Earth are ridden with the worst, most insulting and misdirected attacks against the city and its residents. They are tired cliches, long-since debunked or out-of-date, and some are just bizarre. He begins the piece by noting, correctly, that "obviously, there's "Washington," an actual city where people live and work, and "Washington," a rhetorical construct that embodies the things people don't like about government and politics." After making this helpful distinction, he then proceeds to conflate the two, assigning the perceived dysfunctions of our nation's government as faults of Washington the "actual city where people live and work."

Thus, I thought that I might take a few minutes and examine the reasons put forth by Mr. Waldman for why DC is such a horrible place, so we can see just how strong a case he actually manages to build.

Washington is small.

"Part of the reason D.C. has no representation in Congress is that when it was established, it was thought that while the work of government would be carried out in the District, no one would live here. With a little over 600,000 people, Washington ranks number 25 in population among U.S. cities. [And] because D.C. is so small, it's more dominated by its dominant industry than anywhere else."

There are several arguments here, and all of them are bogus. To begin, it was never "thought that no one would live" in Washington. Quite the opposite; soon after the city was laid out by French architect Pierre L'Enfant, George Washington commenced an ambitious effort to encourage people to relocate to the nation's newly created capital. Lots were auctioned off at next-to-nothing prices, and politicians and federal workers relocating to the federal district were strongly encouraged to make it their permanent home. Even in L'Enfant's original plans for the city, he designed 13 "state squares," around which L'Enfant envisioned states competing with one another for who could attract the most residents and development. True, such development was very slow in coming--it was not until after the Civil War and the reign of Alexander "Boss" Shepherd that many of the city's streets became paved and critical public infrastructure was built. But to state that it was never anticipated that people would live here is flatly wrong.

Further, it's worth noting that DC's current population exceeds that of two states--Vermont and Wyoming--and is within spitting distance of Alaska and North Dakota. When considered as a percentage of the nation's population, DC today has a greater percentage than states such as Nevada and Wyoming upon their admittance to the Union.

As to the argument that DC's perceived existence as a "one industry town" somehow prevents it from attaining congressional representation, as soon as Mr. Waldman points to the constitutional amendment stating that only jurisdictions with sufficiently diversified economies warrant representation in Congress, I'll accept this argument. Ultimately, the constitutional argument against DC representation has always rested upon its requirement that representation in Congress is the province solely of "the people of the several states," and since DC is a District and not a state, it therefore does not warrant congressional representation. Anything else is, well, nonsense.

What Washington does affects everyone, and not always in a good way.

"Despite the fact that Washington has produced some terrific things like Medicare and the Clean Air Act, it's also the fount of a steady stream of misbegotten policies and political nastiness. And D.C.'s most horrible people can have an impact on all of our lives...[t]hat disgusting congressman is making the laws we all live under."

Of all of Waldman's purported reasons for why DC is awful, this one is the worst. Basically, it boils down to the belief that since the politicians here are doing things that Mr. Waldman finds disagreeable, the city of Washington is terrible. Putting aside for a moment the argument one could make that the behavior of Wall Street bankers had at least as much of a negative impact on the country as anything to come out of the federal government in the last 20 years, who Mr. Waldman is actually indicting here are the residents of the 50 states that send to DC those disgusting politicians whom Waldman despises so much. This is where equating the district of Washington--fully functioning city of over 600,000 residents--with "official Washington" is most maddening. The residents of Washington have no say in whom the citizens of the rest of the country send here to conduct the nation's business, and the decisions those individuals make have nothing whatsoever to do with Washington the city.

If you want to find fault here, perhaps direct your ire towards the people of the state who continually send to Washington a representative who thinks taxes are preventing a cure for Alzheimer's.

Washington gets more scrutiny.

The fact that politics gets the deserved attention it does means that ordinary people hear a lot not only about the consequences of policy but the ugly process of making it...[t]hat means that most of the ugliness is on full display.

Here again we have the conflation of the politicians sent here by the rest of the country as an indictment of the city of Washington. So the White House and Capitol Hill press corps reporting on the absurdity of our nation's government makes Washington an awful place? See the response above, and perhaps have a word with those fine people in east Texas who keep sending Washington a representative who warns us of the dire threat of terror babies.

Nowhere else do more people fail upward.

The fact that connections matter more than merit in getting ahead is true to some degree everywhere, but not to an identical extent, and nowhere is it more true than in Washington. That doesn't mean Washington isn't brimming with extraordinarily talented people, because it is. But based on my unscientific survey, it has more hacks enjoying undeserved career advancement than anywhere else.

At least Mr. Waldman admits that his survey used to arrive at this conclusion was "unscientific." This is the argument that grates on me the most, because it paints an entire city as a caricature: a metropolis filled with empty suits who have no tangible skills other than glad-handing, the ability to talk a good game and having the right connections to the right people. And even though that description also seems like a good fit for failed CEOs such as J.C. Penney's Ron Johnson (to say nothing of numerous executives at well-known Wall Street institutions), it's true that there are people here who rightly fall into that category. But therein lies the problem with stereotypes and generalizations. For every high-ranking empty suit Hill staffer, there are dozens of passionate people doing extraordinary work.

Among my own circle of friends and acquaintances, there are people working on cures for AIDS and other terrible diseases, people working fervently to identify solutions to endemic poverty, people advocating for models of better and smarter growth in our nation's cities, journalists who are informing the public about crucial issues that impact our society, and on and on. There are musicians and painters, entrepreneurs and nonprofit executives, transit geeks and planning nerds. *My* admittedly unscientific study shows DC to be a city full of passionate, hard-working, smart, friendly people. House of Cards may be lauded for its accurate portrayal of the seediness and corruption of political Capitol Hill, but never mistake the denizens of Official Washington with the hundreds of thousands of people here doing exceptional things.

Washington has more short-timers.

OK, I'm not sure this is true, and I don't know if anyone has the data to establish it. But it does seem that a huge number of people come to Washington, spend a few years working in the politics industry, and then leave to go somewhere else...[That] transient population keeps D.C.'s character defined by politics, which is the part that never changes.

More anecdotal evidence put forward as solid reasoning to support his thesis. First, I would point Mr. Waldman to the U.S. census figures, which shows that compared to the other 50 states, two--Nevada and Florida--rank behind DC in terms of native-born residents. But that only tells part of the story (after all, claiming that 48 states have more native-born residents than you isn't exactly an ideal argument for non-transiency.) The key here is that DC is compared with other states; jurisdictions that are significantly larger, sometimes exponentially so, than DC. Someone could be born in Montgomery County or Arlington County, move to DC, and would be considered among the many Washington "transplants." Likewise, one could move from DC to Prince George's or Fairfax counties and be considered to have emigrated from the nation's capital. That's not exactly a 1:1 comparison.

Several years back, the good folks at We Love DC did a piece on this topic, where they examined the question of whether DC is truly as transient a city as is commonly thought. The answer, as one might expect, was more nuanced than many believe. The data they studied found that DC compares quite favorably to other major U.S. cities both in terms of the percentage of residents who were born in that city, and the percentage of the population that were residents of that city one year prior. DC had slightly fewer native-born residents than Boston, and slightly more than San Francisco, for instance. Taken in context with the aforementioned problems of comparing DC with states, there is little evidence to support the contention that DC falls outside of the normal range of native vs. non-native population compared with other large cities.

Further, there is another question raised here, which is: does a higher percentage of native-born residents inherently make a city "better"? Better is, of course, a subjective trait. There is something to be said for the stability one finds in neighborhoods with a great percentage of residents who have lived there for generations. But what of "magnet cities" like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, Boston and others that attract residents for reasons such as job opportunities or quality-of-life reasons? My hometown of Columbus, Ohio, a fine city in many respects, has a greater percentage of "native-born" residents than does DC or Boston, for instance. Does that make Columbus a better (or "less awful") city than DC or Boston? By what metrics?

I realize that this is likely giving far too much credibility to an argument that doesn't merit very much. And I am not even venturing into the subtle racism that exists in statements that say that DC does not have a legitimately homegrown or native culture (many longtime African-American residents would vehemently disagree with that; as would the family of my wife, a fourth-generation Washingtonian).

Ultimately, my point here is to correct what I feel are absurd generalizations about the city of Washington, DC that do a tremendous disservice to the multitude of its residents. Pieces like Mr. Waldman's perpetuate a stereotype that is both unfair and harmful: unfair to its citizens, and harmful to the city's reputation both domestically and abroad. Washington, the city, is certainly fraught with its own problems, including its increasingly stratospheric cost of living, a problematic education system and the continued struggles endemic to its most vulnerable residents. And its function as the seat of government for the nation positions it in a unique place in the public consciousness, thus giving it a degree of scrutiny (such as that of Mr. Waldman) that many other cities do not receive. (Can anyone locate the last piece of journalism purporting to ask whether Tulsa, Oklahoma is the worst place on Earth?) But the city of Washington is, in many respects, also a fantastic place to live, something I have observed firsthand both as a resident and as someone living just beyond its borders. (Ironically, my wife and I contributed to DC's supposed transiency problem with our decampment to the suburbs a year-and-a-half ago.)

Waldman ends his piece with the following: "So is Washington worse than anyplace else? Does it really have a higher concentration of dreadful people doing dreadful things? I can't say for sure. But maybe."

Perhaps, as the journalist that he purports to be, Mr. Waldman might spend a bit of time determining whether he *could* say for sure. After all, it would not be tremendously difficult to turn the tables around here and ask: Is Paul Waldman the worst journalist on Earth? Does he really write a greater number of dreadful pieces putting forth dreadful things? I can't say for sure. But maybe.

1 comment:

  1. His piece is trash. Your piece is reasoned.

    It's a shame that trash is what "gets eyeballs."


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