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, 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, “Beltwayland” is perhaps best described as analogous to the Victorian novel the Picture of Dorian Gray—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, much of which is hidden in plain sight, have ushered in a 21st-century gilded age only replicated in America’s few, most privileged enclaves. As Lofgren explains:
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, 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, 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 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 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) 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, 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, 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. That’s more than the annual budgets of entire countries, including Saudi Arabia, Belgium, and Sweden. This has resulted in not only an exploding real estate market, but the wealthiest counties in the country, 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 pushing the poor out of entire neighborhoods 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 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 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, 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.