King Washington

The problem with Washington, DC isn’t money, it’s the city’s ironic birthright.  America, it’s time for a new capital…

In the last few years, individuals like Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have attracted popular support as a result of their outspoken disdain for the corrupting role of money in American politics.  Specifically, they take issue with the integration of Washington and Wall Street and its influence on the political process.  Interestingly, this integration is made of concrete.

To urban geographers, who study spatial patterns of urbanization, the notion of Washington and New York as independent cities is dated.  They comprise Megalopolis  (aka: the “northeast corridor”), one of the world’s largest collections of interdependent cities.  Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, Newark, New York City, Hartford, Providence and Boston, are increasingly considered a singular urban unit representing a scale-shift in city measurement.  The existence of Megalopolis suggests the power of money in Washington is less a temporary annoyance and more a future direction.

History of DC
For approximately 150 years one of the defining characteristics of the United States was its relatively small capital.  Today, Washington DC is huge, a cosmopolitan force to be reckoned with.  Greater Washington is the 4th largest metropolitan region in the USA (See:   Global reference suggests this should be viewed with caution.

Cities exhibit strikingly human hierarchical patterns analogous to how people enjoying inherited power and wealth might abuse it.  Specifically, the relative size of a capital city is the difference between government as servant or master.  This analysis suggests America’s passive management of capital city status puts the nation on a course for disaster.  

The Northeast Megalopolis (aka: BosWash). Image courtesy of ArchDaily
The Northeast Megalopolis (aka: BosWash). Image courtesy of ArchDaily

In Washington’s name
In 1790, the US government provided for the creation of a Federal Capital District, leading to the creation of The District of Columbia (DC).  Carved out of the US state of Maryland and the in geographic center of the new country, the capital was named in honor of America’s first president, George Washington.

Following independence, the birth of the United States was made particularly romantic because the revered General Washington would become the nation’s first leader.  So respected was Washington that he was offered the role of king; he famously declined. Believing unearned power to underly Britain’s mismanagement of America, Washington solidified America’s distaste for monarchy.  It is therefore ironic that the city bearing his name is a permanent ruling city. 

Washington and all capitals enjoy status and privilege among cities because they control tax administration; they control the money.  In keeping with human beings, this is a corrupting dynamic requiring active management.  The best remedy is to keep the capital small because small capitals are subject to strong oversight while big capitals have the opportunity to hide corruption, hoard money and the ego to do both with relative impunity.  Many big capitals falsely conclude they (and perhaps their chosen few) are the only cities capable of greatness; they fail to imagine and therefore neglect other cities.

Painting by George Wilkinson III
Painting by George Wilkinson III

DC, American Invention
Were one to write a list of the top 10 American inventions, many worthy advances would vie for position.  Lightbulbs, air travel, computers, the internet, modern medicine, air conditioning, skyscrapers and McDonalds are a few prospects on a long list.  I’ll wager the District of Colombia is not in the running.  This is an oversight.  America owes the survival of its federation and global economic clout to Washington.

In its day, DC embodied a bold policy innovation.  Placed in the center of the original 13 states, DC was immediately unique from European and the colonial capitals because big government wasn’t near big business.  Instead, America effectively separated business and government when it chose rural lands to house the nation’s capital.  

America also applied rural government to most of its states, particularly those with large colonial capital cities. Dominant, first-born capitals, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah were dethroned at Independence.  State government was replanted in Albany, Harrisburg, Annapolis, Columbia and Atlanta respectively.  As the country grew, this was repeated in most new states.  Today 60% of US states have small capital cities many people have never heard of.

America’s proclivity for peripheral government was the result of many forces.  Here are 3. First, the District of Columbia was a necessity, a literal middle ground where the original states would be fairly represented.  The notion of fair and equitable access was replicated in states where capitals were typically placed in the middle of territories.

Second, most Americans were farmers impoverished by colonization and scarred by the events leading up to the end of the American Revolution in 1780. They associated the evils of colonization with cities and regarded them as cesspools of corruption, unworthy of public policy.

Third, long years of oppression, war and poverty had an impact on the populace.  New state capitals were easy to justify in the name of national security.  Not only would the new capital be accessible and virtuous but safe from attack.

The United States’ duo of rural national and state government was a policy innovation worthy of the term, “revolution,” because it had a profound, albeit accidental, mega-economic impact.

Status is everything
The impact of rural government is so absolute it can be observed from space.  Take a moment to study the two satellite photographs below.

From Space: Eastern portions of the American/Canadian urban system demonstrate a decentralized structure (left). The western portion of the Russian urban system is a textbook centralized system (right). Both images are the same scale and are courtesy of NASA.
From Space: Eastern portions of the American/Canadian urban system demonstrate a decentralized structure (left). The western portion of the Russian urban system is a textbook case of urban primacy and a resulting centralized system (right). Both images are the same scale and are courtesy of NASA.

Decades ago, patterns like these caught the attention of urban geographers, who examine groups of cities or urban systems.  They concluded that urban systems take two shapes, decentralized and centralized.

Decentralized urban systems are usually found in large territories and are characterized by multiple large cities of comparable size giving a physical appearance suggestive of geography. The United States, Canada, South Africa, China and India are good examples of decentralized urban systems.

Conversely, centralized systems like Russia (or Thailand, Kenya, France, Argentina, Mexico, Australian states) are dominated by one urban sprawl (Moscow, Bangkok, Nairobi, Paris, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide respectively). Road maps of these systems look like funnels, all major roads lead to one relatively huge city. 

Interestingly, dominant cities have something in common; they are almost always political capitals.  Researchers gave the world repeated, resounding evidence that capital city status plays a pivotal role in mega-economic development.

How does capital dominance work?  
An urban sprawl is a concentration of infrastructure (e.g. roads, rail, airports, sea ports, etc), most of which is predicated by money, specifically your taxes.  
Money plays a fundamental role in how cities mature. The phrase, “if you build it, they will come” is true; as is its inverse. Specifically, the spatial provision of tax revenue depends upon who is spending it.

Fact: Big-city politicians, rubbing elbows with corporate elites, spend money in a fundamentally different way from politicians who inhabit an isolated, small, administrative city. Put simply, big-city politicians tend to run the territory to serve the capital; small-city politicians tend to run the capital to serve the territory. 

These relatable, human-level tendencies have a macro-scale impact on urbanisation. Satellite images show us how the spatial provision of tax revenue is frequently unfair.  Perhaps not a complete surprise, cities are human beings that exhibit inequality. This suggests many cities are held down and stunted by greedy, giant capitals.

Capital dominance is negative relative to economic development and is statistically associated with higher relative poverty, corporate exploitation, foreign penetration, high proportional extractive industry, instability, peripheral/rural neglect and sometimes secession of sub-national members.  These forces (excluding secession) enhance the dominant city’s advantages.

The Swamp Thing. Image courtesy of TorinoGT
The Swamp Thing. Image courtesy of TorinoGT

From the swamps
At its founding, Washington was a backwater considered an unwise home for the capitol by the 18th century political elite.  Many politicians resented going there due to its unsophisticated, remote surrounds.  Despite this, Washington DC provided the states with a neutral platform that was enormously successful from the perspective of urbanization.

Over 200 years old, Washington has a distinguished record of equitable provision of infrastructure across America’s vast territory. The US’s huge urban system owes its existence to a city that ensured equality among states.  

With time however, Washington has matured into a sophisticated metropolis, home to a powerful government, world-class museums and monuments. Washington is arisen.  By the Potomac River lies a wealthy, dominant urban sprawl, an A-lister. As evidence of its high rank, today certain suburbs of Washington, DC are by accounts the wealthiest in the United States. One cannot visit the city without absorbing its palpable self-importance.  Washington’s elite are self-conscious royalty of New Rome.

There are numerous accounts of corruption.  For example, it only recently became illegal for those working in financial regulatory administrative functions to make investments based on information they process which is not yet publicly available.  This is one of countless administrative examples that underly Washington’s magnetism. Corruption, dysfunction, inefficiency, deadlock, and infiltration by lobbyists characterize the city.  It is no wonder the well intentioned lose their way. 

A way out
The United States adopted rural government in its infancy.  If this was a conscious decision to mitigate corruption, the founders neglected to enshrine it in policy, perhaps because they could not imagine modern urbanization.  Despite no policy provision, a good case exists to create one.  Washington’s ascension is not abating.  On the contrary, Washington’s integration with corporate America is solidifying and America’s devolution into oligarchy is accelerating.

Consider the following headline, “Goldman Sachs relocates global HQ to DC.”  This would constitute one of the world’s most powerful investment banks moving next door to the White House. Rest assured public outcry would follow.  

What differentiates Americans is that they would complain. Unlike citizens of countries dominated by capitals, Americans would recognize the issue by name, that there is something right and proper with the formal separation of political capitals and big business


Somewhere over the rainbow
It should be apparent that I espouse the replanting of the US federal government; I recommend dethroning Washington of its capital status.  More to point, urbanization’s repeated tendency to defy expectations needs to become part of the policy discussion.  National strategy should be guided by the assumption that urbanization will defy imagination; it always has.  

The notion of moving America’s federal government may seem radical.  I mulled over the impossibility of the concept for a time.  Gradually, I came to see it as a strategic policy maneuver that strengthens the federation and unlocks economic growth by addressing corruption at its root.

Washington, DC will remain one of America’s great cities. America does it no disservice by abdicating its status.  As at its founding, America’s future depends upon a more modest capital, a city of restrained size, repelling to the self-interested and corporate enterprise.  #NewDC