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The Cleveland Plan

“Location, location, location” refers to real estate…and income mobility? 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, but Clevelanders also had the indignity of watching the man who spurned them 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 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 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, 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, 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—home to America’s new meritocratic elite—and return to the people. Look at the economicimpactmilitary bases have on local communities. When Fort Bragg announced a massive influx of new personnel after the most recent base realignment, my hometown newspaper 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), 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 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 than DC.

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.

Surely that deserves at least a Cabinet department.

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