Happy New Year, Washington

PrintPrint

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat representing the federal workforce, frets over the impact of sequestration or any alternative on his Fairfax County district: “Undoubtedly, we will take a hit…It’s going to result in a steady retrenchment in government investment in both the civilian and defense sectors. That’s going to affect employment and the robustness of our economic growth in this region.”

Of course, this is a “hit” – or more likely a nick – that comes after a doubling of the federal budget in a decade. And in the past weeks, the Washington Post has done a good job of reporting the impact of all that taxed and borrowed money on the Washington area. For instance:

The Washington region has emerged from the recession looking even more affluent compared with the rest of the country, boasting seven of the 10 counties with the highest household incomes in the nation, new census numbers show.

With a median household income surpassing $119,000, Loudoun County heads the list. Fairfax County, at nearly $106,000, is second. Both have held the same positions for several years running….

The rankings in the 2011 American Community Survey released Thursday expand Washington’s dominance among high-income households, reflecting a regional economy that was largely cushioned as the recession yanked down income levels elsewhere. Household incomes rose in most counties around Washington last year, even as they continued to sink around the country.

The stability of an economy built on the pillars of the federal government, its legions of contractors and a flourishing high-tech sector is evident in the income rankings.

In 2007, before the recession began, five counties in suburban Washington made it into the top 10. By 2010, there were six. The seven in the latest ranking is an all-time high.

And where does that money go? To housing, certainly (thanks, America!), as the Post noted in an article on the “red-hot real estate market”:

It didn’t look like a house anyone would pay $400,000 extra for.

Several walls inside the gray townhouse with blue trim were streaked with water stains. The first floor was noticeably uneven. And termites had dined in front.

The big pluses: It was 2,850 square feet, had off-street parking, and was in walking distance of Union Station [and thus of Capitol Hill]….

Two weeks and 168 bids later, the house — in the 800 block of Fourth Street NE — was sold this month for $760,951 to an unidentified buyer….

While much of the nation is still struggling to emerge from a historic housing-market meltdown, the District is reliving its boom days. High rents, low interest rates, low inventory, and a flood of new residents in their 20s and 30s are making parts of the city feel like it’s 2005 again.

The median home sale price in the District is up 14 percent from last year, according to RealEstate Business Intelligence (RBI)….

Bullish real estate agents say it is only a matter of time until those areas catch up as well. There is no talk of “bubbles” or fallout from a dive off the “fiscal cliff.” People are still moving to the Washington area, where the population grew by 122,000 from 2010 to 2011, Census Bureau data show.

And for those with money left over after paying Washington real estate prices, there are the finer things in life, the things that used to be for hedge fund managers in New York and tech innovators in Silicon Valley:

With plenty of two-income highly educated families, the D.C. region already has a reputation as one of the most affluent in the country. But the area is fast emerging as a home to the truly rich as well. 

High-end luxury retailers are responding. Brands such as Aston Martin are expanding their operations into the area — betting, for instance, that there will be plenty of customers who can afford the $280,000 sports car James Bond drives in the movies. Nearby in Tysons, a Saint Laurent store and the high-end electric car maker Tesla are also set to open their doors.

The region’s top one percent of households make more than a half million dollars yearly — far more than the national average for the one percent, according to a study of Census data by Sentier Research, an Annapolis-based data analysis firm.

And these top earners — many of whom are from dual-income households and benefit from federal contracting — weathered the recession better than their counterparts in some other metropolitan areas and the nation. More are moving beyond comfortable affluence to a much higher standard of living.

“What is unique to D.C. is that there has been a change in the complexion of wealth here. There didn’t used to be much of this ultra-high-net-worth business here and now there is,” said Susan Traver, the regional president of BNY Mellon Wealth Management.

Washington is wealthy and getting wealthier, despite history’s slowest recovery in most of the country. As we’ve said here before, this of course reflects partly the high level of federal pay, as Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven have been detailing. And it also reflects the boom in lobbying as government comes to claim and redistribute more of the wealth produced in all those other metropolitan areas. 

Money spent in Washington is taken from the people who produced it all over America. Washington produces little real value on its own. National defense and courts are essential to our freedom and prosperity, but that’s a small part of what the federal government does these days. Most federal activity involves taking money from some people, giving it to others and keeping a big chunk as a transaction fee.

Every business and interest group in society has an office in Washington devoted to getting some of the $3.6 trillion federal budget for itself: senior citizens, farmers, veterans, teachers, social workers, oil companies, labor unions - you name it. The massive spending increases of the Bush-Obama years have created a lot of well-off people in Washington. New regulatory burdens, notably from Obamacare, are also generating jobs in the lobbying and regulatory compliance business.

Walk down K Street, the heart of Washington’s lobbying industry, and look at the directory in any office building. They’re full of lobbyists and associations that are in Washington, for one reason: because, as Willie Sutton said about why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”

And neither sequestration nor any of the alternatives under discussion will fundamentally change that.