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How Wartime Washington Lives in Luxury

In no place in America are the abrupt changes in the nation’s security posture so keenly reflected in real estate and lifestyle than the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. In the decade after 9/11, it has grown into a sprawling, pretentious representation of the federal government’s growth, vices and prosperity, encompassing the wealthiest counties, the best schools, and some of the highest rates of income inequality in the country.

“People hate Washington but they don’t really know why,” says Mike Lofgren [1], a longtime Beltway inhabitant and arch critic of its culture. But show them what is underneath the dignified facades—particularly the greed and excess financed by the overgrown military-industrial complex—and the populist resentment recently harnessed by insurgent candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders just might have a concrete grievance that can drive real change.

For Lofgren [1], “Beltwayland” is perhaps best described as analogous to the Victorian novel the Picture of Dorian Gray [2]—a rich, shimmering ecosystem in which all of the ugly, twisted aberrations are hidden away in an attic somewhere, or rather sadly, in the poverty-blighted wards and low income zip codes of “the DMV” (The District, Maryland, and Virginia).

Oscar Wilde might have seen a bit of his Victorian England in Washington’s self-indulgent elite, but unlike the gentry of Dorian Gray, men and women here see not leisure, but amassing personal wealth through workaholism, as a virtue of the ruling class. For them, a two-front war and Washington’s newly enlarged national-security state [3], much of which is hidden in plain sight, have ushered in a 21st-century gilded age [4] only replicated in America’s few, most privileged enclaves. As Lofgren explains [5]:

It is common knowledge that Wall Street and its inflated compensation packages have remade Manhattan into an exclusive playground for the rich, just as tech moguls have made San Francisco unaffordable for the middle class. It is less well known that the estimated $4 trillion spent since 9/11 on the war on terrorism and billions spent on political campaigns ($6 billion on the 2012 elections alone) have trickled down so extravagantly to the New Class settled around Washington’s Beltway that they have remade the landscape of our capital.

The perfect storm—hundreds of billions in federal procurement dollars flooding into the area after 9/11, along with the easing of corporate campaign fundraising thanks to the now infamous Citizens United decision—has deepened the trough for lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, developers and contractors.

“The federal government is a $3.6 trillion beast in the district’s backyard that keeps the lights burning and the paychecks printing from government office buildings on Capitol Hill down along the Dulles Toll Road to the tech consulting firms in Virginia,” wrote Derek Thompson in The Atlantic in 2011 [6], when the area was growing at three times the rate of the rest of the country in its post-recession years.

“Uncle Sam directly employs one-sixth of the district’s workforce and indirectly pays for much more.” It is the “much more” that Lofgren likes to focus on, pointing out that government workers, who might enjoy more job security and pensions, actually have a cap on annual salaries and benefits. It’s the private class that has remade the landscape, [7] the worst characterized by “the K Street lawyers, political consultants, Beltway fixers and war on terrorism profiteers who run a permanent shadow government in the nation’s capital,” he writes.

So where do they live? D.C. proper has transmogrified [8] into an almost unrecognizable state with former badlands like the Navy Yard, U Street, Downtown, and Capitol Hill, joining the vanguards of wealth in old Georgetown, Northwest D.C. Just over the state line in Chevy Chase and Bethesda, Maryland, real estate and especially rents have skyrocketed as baby boomers with fat retirements have joined the yuppie migration [9] to luxury living in urban centers.

Travel out of what Lofgren calls the Imperial City, over the Potomac River on I-395 into Virginia and there you will see the first of many rings of the military-industrial complex, with major defense contractors cheek by jowl with government satellite offices in Crystal City. Just beyond is what remains of the more modest post-WWII boom neighborhoods (which include, believe it or not, remnants of a once agrarian culture [10]) in Arlington, Virginia.

These neighborhoods, especially those north of Route 50, are cluttered now with condos, single family ramblers, bungalows, Cape Cods, and brick box homes selling for $900,000 or more depending on the upgrades inside and out. Interspersed, like golden cohorts in a mouthful of well-maintained but otherwise white teeth, are blown-out, mostly neo-craftsman style rehabs, and completely new McMansions sometimes three times the size, looming often awkwardly, and squeezed into fenced-off, quarter-acre lots.

These formerly modest zip codes are inhabited by a boom of singles and families with enough money to finance home improvements in a building market that’s jacked up its prices to accommodate demand. This is not the sport for the faint of heart, but of a proto-elite with expanding incomes and guilt-free debt.

Further out, there are the rooted, old-money neighborhoods of North Arlington, McLean, and Potomac in Maryland, where the Washington establishment began migrating in the 1970s, and now overloaded with “the better heeled sort”—government executives, surgeons, politicians, venture capitalists, think tankers, lobbyists, and fundraisers who have made it. Just outside the Beltway are places like Great Falls, where the median home price is $1.3 million. In 2011, according to a Washington Post feature about the rewards of the contracting boom [11], 16 percent of Great Falls households were earning $500,000 or more a year and at least more than half made $250,000.

In his latest book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, [1] Lofgren ponders this explosion of wealth, but goes well beyond the Beltway border into the exploding developments along the Dulles technology corridor, Tysons Corner, the newer “Mosaic District” supplanting a once desolate strip mall existence in Fairfax County, all the way out in the more rural, former Virginia Hunt country of Loudoun County. Here new “structures resemble the architecture of Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany as imagined by Walt Disney, or Liberace.” He says even more than the strivers of Arlington, and the settled elite of the inner burbs, this metamorphosizing sprawl represents everything that is perverse about the last 15 years—the war machine, the big money politics, the hubris of the one-percent, and the brutality of losing, as professions that did not so easily escape the recession, left people unemployed, foreclosed, and priced out of an area they once called “home.”

“Loudoun is per capita the richest county in the country as well as one of the most Republican and is something of a world headquarters of the McMansion as a lifestyle statement,” Lofgren writes. Living in these totems of new wealth, he says are “executives of Beltway Bandit firms, totally dependent on the federal government for their livelihoods,” pretending “to lead the life of a free Jeffersonian squirearchy.”

Consider this: From 2009 to 2015, Virginia received $295 billion in federal contracting dollars [12]. That’s more than the annual budgets [13] of entire countries, including Saudi Arabia, Belgium, and Sweden. This has resulted in not only an exploding real estate market [14], but the wealthiest counties in the country [15], year over year.

Meanwhile, the spirit of competition has created a lifestyle of high-end consumption, helicopter parenting, over-achieving and stressed out kids, and a pampered millennial class [16] pushing the poor out of entire neighborhoods [17]in the DMV.

Lofgren takes particular aim at “The McMansion as symbol of the Deep State,” which he describes in his book as the Washington’s power elite, “the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism and the militarization of foreign policy, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of the a plutocratic social structure that has given us the most unequal society in almost a century and the political dysfunction that has paralyzed day-to-day governance.”

If Lofgren sounds ticked off, it’s because he is. Living in the Fort Hunt area of Alexandria (close to the Potomac, near Mount Vernon and the Army’s Fort Belvoir) for more than three decades, he sees firsthand the razing of modest abodes [18] once “good enough” for Washington’s commuter class. He worked on Capitol Hill before and after 9/11, and knows how the business of government changed along with national security and political trends. He has charted the disconnect with the rest of the country and the Republic as envisioned by the country’s founders, and senses that this Deep State is not working for us—but to sustain the power, privilege and lifestyle he sees right outside his window.

Sure, Washington is rich and greedy. It’s disdainful of “flyover country,” and is filled with the ugly people depicted in Mark Leibovich’s This Town [19] in 2013. His Deep State, Lofgren explains, “is like that [book], but it’s more than that.”

“It’s not all about money—though the money comes to them,” he says. It’s about ideology. Liebovich “failed to improve our understanding of what is the ideological, the underlying structures  that emanate from Washington and into the country. He depicts people leaving Capitol Hill and going into lobbying for corporations. But he leaves off what it means for the Average Joe. It means there is this seamless web of connections between the government and Wall Street that dictates the laws we live under.”

In Lofgren’s view, there appears to be no end to the madness, especially with the amount of money fueling the presidential election, the end of federal budget sequestration, and a renewed interest in building up U.S. defense interests overseas. And wealth inequality rates continue to be the starkest here than anywhere else [20], showing that the prosperity doesn’t trickle down to everyone.

“There is a lot more money and perverse incentives” to push for more war, more tax and economic policies that benefit this upper strata, sustaining the status quo culture in Washington, he says.

“The incentives are positive for those engineering it all because they will get the promotions, the jobs, the contracts,” Lofgren adds, “even though it might be hurting the broad mass of people everywhere else.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter [21].

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "How Wartime Washington Lives in Luxury"

#1 Comment By libertarian jerry On April 25, 2016 @ 5:41 am

Interesting. I wonder how much Sec.8 housing is located in these newly built McMansion neighborhoods?

#2 Comment By Bob On April 25, 2016 @ 9:00 am

I don’t think anyone would write an article like this if D.C. hadn’t made great improvements in terms of its’ amenities and cityscape. Downtown DC is built to be beautiful with monuments, brick sidewalks, granite curbs, statues, fountains, museums and architectural achievements, and avenues built with vistas in mind. I think that is more of a reason people want to live here. It just so happens to have a continental climate, beaches and mountains and other large cities within a few hours, and a subway system. This article seems like a chicken or the egg thing to me. When were we not involved in war? I heard from a local that democratic presidents are good for DC’s economy, but I haven’t verified that. That seems to run counter to this article too.

#3 Comment By Fred Bowman On April 25, 2016 @ 9:01 am

I worked for a Navy contractor for over twenty years in Arlington, Va and at the 2002 Christmas party one of the senior VPs stated that what the country needed was a war. Well he and the other military contractors got their wish and apparently by reading this article, they have done very well. Sadly, the REAL reason we’re in these unnecessary, interventionist wars is to feed the gluttonist appitite of the M-I-C and all their fellow travelers in the DC area.

#4 Comment By Johann On April 25, 2016 @ 10:28 am

When I went through the DC area about 5 years ago, there was a lot of construction going on, not surprisingly. And not surprisingly, almost all of the workers were hispanics that could speak little english. So even the construction work resulting from the Big Government boom is denied our poorer less skilled citizens. Perhaps direct government funded construction is not using immigrant labor, but much or all of the construction in the DC area is due to growing government, and is at least indirectly government money. And, I wouldn’t be surprised if the subcontractors or subsubsubcontractors are using illegal immigrants even on direct government funded projects.

#5 Comment By Uncle Billy On April 25, 2016 @ 10:40 am

Very difficult for a “middle-class” Federal employee, making say $80,000 per year to live inside the Beltway Bubble. When you have those lawyers and lobbyists making over $500K driving up the price of housing to insane levels.

#6 Comment By Andrew B Brown On April 25, 2016 @ 11:48 am

The only thing I disagree with is the word “new”. I guess it has become more visible recently.

#7 Comment By Aaron Paolozzi On April 25, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

As a former resident of the area (I escaped in 2014), I can say that there definitely is Sec.8 housing, it exists where you would expect it. These areas are nothing special in terms of how the land and resources are divided up. The only difference is the magnitude of difference between the Beltway “Elite” and the people who are actually from the land, and the speed at which the change has happened.

I used to drive home on some quaint backroads in Vienna (Northern Virginia) and I loved all the trees, sometimes their boughs were so full on a bright sunny day you were driving in the darkness with the lights on looking for deer. But from when I started my drives on that road (2006) to when they ended (2014) just in that small amount of time swaths of trees were surgically removed and Mansions were built. Not McMansions…I mean the real deal, gaudy, gated, estates. This was an undeveloped area, with very small houses and families that had lived here for decades. I am a proponent of change, I love technology, and I love rising above the past. But if you erase the past you forget so much more than a drive in the woods.

That whole area reminds me of the scene in the Last Samurai where Nathan Algeren hands the emperor Katsumodo’s sword and the emperor speaks about his people, their progress but not forgetting their past. My buddy who is still stuck there calls the area SuperNOVA, it’s gravitational in it’s pull, and at its center is a dying star.

#8 Comment By Noizpots On April 25, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

Well, I have been thinking this for years… there is absolutely NO incentive for these bloodsuckers to end the wars, overturn Citizens United or spread the wealth… as long as government contractors are permitted to operate with such impunity and greed, we are doomed. It actually makes me want to become an Expat. Have a nice day.

#9 Comment By Jon Lester On April 25, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

I spent a couple days in DC and I plainly saw homeless people by the dozens around Union Station and various points between there and our hotel at DuMont circle. As obvious as it was, I think we know it’s well within human capacity to ignore them after a while, and I suspect it’s not far removed from why so many people are “Ready for Hillary” without qualification.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 25, 2016 @ 8:15 pm

No observation is more important than this.

“It means there is this seamless web of connections between the government and Wall Street that dictates the laws we live under.”

We must and must isn’t strong enough — prevent elected officials and government employees from stakes in the financial sector. That has been my position from the time I first visited this sight years ago. And it remains my position now.

#11 Comment By Andrew Zook On April 25, 2016 @ 10:28 pm

A few thoughts:
1st: Trump isn’t going to bring these people to heel… he’s going to make deals with them, because they’re obviously “winners” and he likes winners. He’ll wine and dine them, maybe win a concession or two but mostly he’ll let them carry on…

2nd: Liked these lines, “Living in these totems of new wealth, he says are “executives of Beltway Bandit firms, totally dependent on the federal government for their livelihoods,” pretending “to lead the life of a free Jeffersonian squirearchy.”
Too true – I assume these same “conservative” Repub types would look down their noses at anybody much lower who through life’s lottery or some other misfortune happen to be taking a pittance from the gov dole… but would probably huff and puff and blow a fuse if you pointed out how latched to the government teat they are.
I’m glad I don’t interact daily or work with these types… I’d be tempted to try and punch their amoral snobbery through their faces; which would brand me a criminal and only make them feel more elevated than they already are.

#12 Comment By Johann On April 26, 2016 @ 11:00 am

@Andrew, the DC camp followers are equal opportunity opportunists. They will prostitute themselves to any party. In fact, I think they would change countries if they thought they would get a better deal.

#13 Comment By Johann On April 26, 2016 @ 11:04 am

@Jon,

Ready for Hillary?? Are you serious? She is the queen of quid pro quo.

#14 Comment By Alfred Giannantonio On April 26, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

Thanks very much for publishing this article; it should be on the front page of every major U.S. daily newspaper.

#15 Comment By Paul On April 27, 2016 @ 12:28 am

Ha! Since when, Mr Lofgren, has Loudoun County been “one of the most Republican counties in the country”?

I left Virginia and greater DC in 2008, and seeing the rapidity of growth over the past eight years is sobering. We Americans seem to live on a fruited drain, these days, with all the fruit rolling down to the good ol’ federal district. Yippee!

#16 Comment By Banger On April 27, 2016 @ 5:09 pm

Washington was always somewhat sketchy as any world capital is bound to be. I lived most of my life in the Washington milieu and can tell you that careerism, ambitious and ideological people always managed to make the dollars but the difference was in scale–today the “take” is many multiples of what it was and it is not limited to Americans but involves foreigners from every continent joining in on the “game.”

The older post-WWII generation mostly cared about the country–not as the Deep State it is now but the real country. I think many of them were wrong-headed but they cared about the future. Since the late 80s things began to change fairly dramatically partly because of the growth in contracting with “re-inventing government” and other such nonsense and partly because of the dramatic lowering of moral standards in the country. Today the federal gov’t is systemically corrupt–there is no alternative but to take part in the corruption and culture of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

The sad part is many of those people the mercenaries, criminals and well-meaning people deceive themselves, their families and their friends and colleagues. Mostly, people live a lie. I had to move away and lost my career.

#17 Comment By Russell On April 28, 2016 @ 3:42 pm

To “prosperity, encompassing the wealthiest counties, the best schools, and some of the highest rates of income inequality in the country.”

Must be added deplorable taste in boats.

#18 Comment By Kreditanstalt On April 28, 2016 @ 10:05 pm

Just to think…all that tacky excess was involuntarily funded either by taxes extorted from private individuals or by all users of US dollars via inflating the money supply…

#19 Comment By Stephen Sniegoski On April 29, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

Kelley Vlahos quotes Mike Lofgren “Loudoun is per capita the richest county in the country as well as one of the most Republican …”
Actually, Obama carried Loudoun county in 2012
75,292 Romney
82,479 Obama
[22]
Of course, the overall DC metro area is much more Democratic.
2012 Presidential Election
Obama 67.5% 1,813,963
Romney 30.9% 829,567
[23]

#20 Comment By Betty Pawsheifer On April 29, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

Yet every Republican calls for more military spending.

#21 Comment By Brian McNeill On May 1, 2016 @ 1:41 pm

Like Mr. Buchanan, I too am a native Washingtonian. There’s always been a particular class of over-achieving zealot that rails against “Washington” and then arrives and works very hard to create a sinecure from which to enrich itself and never to leave again. I’ve seen it all my life. Nothing new here.

The size of the fortunes and the sheer number of people living off of the state has grown, but to blame this class of people is to miss the real issue. They’re not the problem; they’re a symptom of an overly centralized government with its hands into far too many matters.

Create a locus of power and you will attract rent-seekers and supplicants galore.

#22 Comment By kalendjay On May 3, 2016 @ 7:14 pm

Have you and I been reading the same book?

Lofgen’s work is a confused progressive screed by an embittered Republican that wields the hatchet against the GOP (sorry, that still means “conservative” in many quarters) and offers no solutions that can’t be offered by a malcontent.

There is very little in it about a “deep state” and discusses almost nothing in secretive, duplicitous, or simply unknown policy. This is a forgettable rehash of citations from “Democracy Now”.

But I will add my own 2 cents about DC. It’s probably still a lousy place to get a pizza. What do you expect when your presidential candidates don’t know how to eat one?

#23 Comment By Barbara Piper On May 11, 2016 @ 7:47 am

Hmmm. I’ve lived in D.C. most of my life, apart from stints at graduate school and law school, and I’m surprised that Lofgren only now recognizes what we have been seeing since the 1970s, at least. Read a few issues of the Washingtonian from the late 70s…

#24 Comment By Heidelberg On September 16, 2016 @ 9:44 am

There’s a way to help ameliorate, if not fix, this problem. We need to split up the government. DC must no longer be the home of every Department.

For example, the Department of the Interior should move to Denver, Colorado. The Department of the Treasury also needs to be moved for the good of the country, and not to New York. Perhaps Detroit could use the influx of wealthy regulators? The rest of the departments will be shifted out as well, to America’s largest cities (but not to NYC, LA, or SF which don’t need it) and away from the capital. It’s important to keep the people who work from the government from schmoozing too much with other government employees and connected to the lives of more typical Americans.