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The Cleveland Plan

“Location, location, location” refers to real estate…and income mobility [1]? The Times reports that the industrial Midwest and South are home to metro areas with the least income mobility—this economic geography matters. The sad thing is Congress can’t even pass a watered-down immigration reform bill, so the prospects of legislation that might actually grapple with this issue are slim to none.

But there is one thing that could unite Democrats and Republicans and begin to address the problem: let’s move strategically unimportant federal departments and agencies to economically impoverished cities and towns across America. Republicans would support it because, well, they hate DC and favor “real” America. Democrats would support it because their cities and states would benefit disproportionately (think Atlanta, Michigan, or Illinois).

Call it the Cleveland Plan after the city that exemplifies America’s decline. Not only does Cleveland routinely rank as one of America’s fastest-dying cities [2], but Clevelanders also had the indignity of watching the man who spurned them [3] turn around and win the 2012 (and 2013) NBA Finals (not to mention they still claim Dennis Kucinich as a favorite son). Plop the Department of Energy HQ in Public Square and you suddenly have thousands of jobs that aren’t going anywhere.

Why is the Department of Agriculture on the National Mall when it could be in Kansas, which devotes 90.1 percent [4] of its land to agriculture (compared to DC’s 0)? Shouldn’t government be close to the people it serves? In the same vein, perhaps one of the many blighted urban areas across the country could welcome the Department of Housing and Urban Development (hello, Detroit!). The Department of Education could even set up a roving headquarters in one of the nation’s worst performing school systems (scratch that—it’s already been done—ahem, DC).

Let’s face it: DC has been doing really well [5] lately. From 2007 to 2012, DC expanded 14 percent (the rest of the nation grew by a measly three percent). Seems like the city could afford to, shall we say, spread the wealth around. Especially when you consider a city like Flint, Michigan [6], where less than a third of citizens are under 18 and a full tenth of residents up and left in the last decade (unemployment: 9.8 percent). Opportunities are evaporating in these communities which are rapidly graying and getting poorer. As economist Enrico Moretti explained in The New Geography of Jobs [7], people—especially non-college graduates—just aren’t as mobile as they used to be. Given this “stickiness” for the poorest among us, the solution might just be to bring the jobs to them.

If this strikes you as populist, you’re right. Just think: good, high-paying jobs would leave DC’s Super Zips [8]—home to America’s new meritocratic elite [9]—and return to the people. Look at the economic [10] impact [11] military bases [12] have on local communities. When Fort Bragg announced a massive influx of new personnel after the most recent base realignment, my hometown newspaper [13] in Lumberton, North Carolina (pop: 21,000) could not contain its glee.

And consider how much harder things would be for lobbyists! Instead of walking from K St to Constitution Ave (sorry, I mean Ubering from K to Constitution [14]), they would have to fly halfway across the country to pressure regulators into making the “right” decision.

A few more salutary consequences: Traffic and congestion would disappear. Matt Yglesias [15] could breathe a sigh of relief as rents start to fall. We could sell off the office buildings currently occupying prime real estate in downtown DC to start paying down our national debt. And don’t forget that the federal employee’s dollar would go a lot further in Casper, Wyoming [16] than DC [17].

Our nation’s capital is on the Potomac because it was at the center of the country in 1790. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that it’s 2013 and the geographic center isn’t Maryland, but Belle Fourche, South Dakota [18].

Surely that deserves at least a Cabinet department.

Follow @AEDent [19]

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#1 Comment By Cliff On July 26, 2013 @ 9:39 am

This is a fine idea — I’m all for moving government out of Washington and giving DC back to Maryland. But might bureaucrats in Detroit or Cleveland become like aid workers in Haiti, driving their white SUVs, with the windows rolled all the way up, past the impoverished multitudes?

#2 Comment By Aaron Paolozzi On July 26, 2013 @ 10:06 am

I believe this piece was a bit of satire, but even if it isn’t, it was still funny. Living 20 minutes outside of DC myself, I know for a fact that politicians would never even bring and idea like that to the table. Regardless of future cost savings, or any perceived benefits, the politicians would see the cost of moving all of that and immediately justify that it placed an undue burden on the taxpayers (and themselves) and then call it a day and pat each other on the back.

#3 Comment By Bob Jones On July 26, 2013 @ 10:27 am

Cliff has a point, but also consider that any time a democrat is in the white house, Fox News would be able to to countless stories on the excessive travel budget of these agencies. Yet another jobs program, as Fox would have to hire some interns to go through the budget to find all those plane tickets from Topeka to DC.

#4 Comment By Vince On July 26, 2013 @ 10:49 am

Actually, I think this is all backwards. I’m for moving even more government agencies to DC, the better to contain the contagion.

#5 Comment By arrScott On July 26, 2013 @ 11:25 am

What, no mention of the obvious national-security benefits? A well-placed terrorist nuke in DC could shut down most of at least 12 of the 14 federal departments. Scatter the departments – keep Treasury in DC and Defense across the river in Virginia, but dispatch the rest to appropriate cities other than Washington and New York – and the federal government would become nearly invulnerable to a decapitating terrorist or preemptive military attack.

#6 Comment By TomB On July 26, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

Anthony Dent wrote:

“The sad thing is Congress can’t even pass a watered-down immigration reform bill…”

Damn! So *that’s* it! So long as it’s labeled “reform” it’s good!

And here I always thought that one had to consider the substance of any proposed legislation to determine if it was good or not.

No *wonder* the pro-immigration bill people not only never talk about the substance of their Bill themselves other than in the vaguest of terms (“fixing a ‘broken’ system!; bringing people “in from the shadows!”), but treat any talk of such substance as beyond the pale toxic/racist.

Geez, if only I’d known before…

#7 Comment By Peter H On July 26, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

This happens a lot already. Agency headquarters remain in DC, but a lot of agencies open offices in cities around the country. For example, US Treasury operates the public debt bureau out of West Virginia, and the USPTO has an office in Detroit where it keeps a bunch of patent examiners.

#8 Comment By Viking On July 26, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

Interesting piece, whether satirical or not. I would have to wonder, tho, if it wouldn’t be better ultimately to just let go of a lot of the national bureaucracy than find new homes for it? Btw, you mention that Flint has less than a third of its population under 18. Isn’t that typical? I believe that those under 18 constitute about a quarter nationally.

#9 Comment By JB On July 26, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

Agree with ArrScott that it is foolish to concentrate so many federal agencies — including the theoretically legitimate, rights-protecting ones like Defense and EPA — in such a small area where they can be crippled en masse by a military or terrorist strike or strikes.

As for the column being a joke, I hope not. It’s high past time to stop subsidizing a lavish, out-of-touch, arrogant federal government “imperial city” in DC / NoVa / Maryland. Let the federal taxpayers in the other 48 States who are paying for these agencies share much more of the direct economic benefit of those hundreds of thousands of federal jobs. Let Virginia and Maryland figure out how to survive without such a disproportionate share of the money looted from federal taxpxayers.

#10 Comment By JB On July 26, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

Viking: Yeah, I’d also rather eliminate federal agencies rather than move them around geographically. Until and unless we abolish these agencies, however, the direct economic benefits of their employees’ presence should be spread around the country much more evenly.

But I do see the logic of the comment that the fed gov should remain concentrated around DC so as to limit the baleful political influence of self-interested fed gov employees. Don’t relish the prospect of new blocs of (presumably pro-government-spending) federal employees exerting greater direct influence on additional congressmen.

#11 Comment By Neildsmith On July 26, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

I’m thinking about moving to Kansas. What’s the matter with Kansas? Do you think they will let me in… being a non-Kansan and all? I understand they really really don’t like immigrants. Being white, I think I might be able to pass for a Kansan but I really don’t have the accent. They might peg me as an outsider. What’s the matter with Kansas?

Sad to say I’ve lived in both DC and Cleveland. I know what’s the matter with them. I feel bad for Cleveland… nice people generally but suffering from globalization and all the terrible things that have devastated the middle class all over. DC… I used to call that place “shark infested waters”.

Come to think of it… just about all the USA is shark infested.

#12 Comment By Richard W. Bray On July 26, 2013 @ 10:08 pm

Wastingtown, DC

We’ll spend the people’s money as we please
Entitled to an endless building boom
Living in the District of Disease

We’ll charge a tariff every time you sneeze
We’ll tax your rest when you are in your tomb
We’ll spend the people’s money as we please

It’s still your country we just hold the keys
It’s still your cloth, but we control the loom
Living in the District of Disease

Be sure to pay your taxes and your fees
We need it to enlarge the endless room
We’ll spend the people’s money as we please

We won’t stop until you’re on your knees
Our project calls for universal doom
Living in the District of Disease

We squeeze and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze
And everybody else can suck on fumes
We’ll spend the people’s money as we please
Living in the District of Disease

#13 Comment By M_Young On July 26, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

Why not just break up the country?

#14 Comment By Matt On September 3, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

Or, instead of moving the literal government to other states, we stop firing state employees by the hundreds of thousands? Doesn’t your plan seem a little like robbing Peter to pay Paul?