Monday, September 5, 2011


Freakonomics offers up some parting words from Justin Wolfers as he leaves DC to head off to Princeton for a year. His piece is full of praise for both the intellectual life at Brookings and the broader experience of life inside the beltway.

I beg to differ, at least in part.  I am no expert on Brookings, but it is pretty easy to find people around who lament that organization's move from emphasizing serious policy-relevant research to emphasizing serious policy analysis. These are not the same, and I have some sympathy with these lamentations.

In terms of the city, it is certainly true that taxpayers outside the beltway provide a wealth of subsidized leisure time activities for upper-middle class residents, from parks to museums to stadia. It is also true that there are many excellent restaurants, and a truly amazing range of low and middle-brow ethnic places (see Tyler Cowen's dining guide for a description). I do miss my favorite places in Chinatown (though the area itself has lost its decaying charm and now feels more like a suburban mall with too many Chinese restaurants) as well as the Capital Q. But many of the high-end places think they are better than they are, and have servers with attitudinal disorders that render the dining experience less pleasant.

More broadly, DC is a company town and that company is the federal government. The main local product is, to put it bluntly, lies. This is true regardless of whether the red gang or the blue gang is ruling the local streets, though DC is nonetheless chock full of people who quite implausibly imagine that there is some important substantive difference between the two gangs in terms of their devotion to science, or good policy, or sound economics, or sex scandals, or whatever. Indeed, I suspect that being able to handle intense cognitive dissonance on this very point is the key to a happy and successful life inside the beltway. On the other hand, the rarest of things inside the beltway is an actual liberal, someone who thinks that government should limit itself to activities related to actual public goods and that government has not more, but rather less, moral status than private sector firms and non-profits precisely because its customers pay for its products not voluntarily but under threat of force. And, at least in my experience, even the most strident of red and blue partisans outside the beltway have a helpful tempering of reality and good manners that makes them ever so much more pleasant to be around than their beltway-bound counterparts.

DC is the only place I am aware of where personals ads often list party affiliations. It's singles scene is, in the memorable words of the original Wonkette, Ana Marie Cox,  "the special olympics of sex". It is also a city chock full of people full of pride at their devotion to "public service" and love of "community" who pass up most or all of the chances they have to actually be nice to other people. This is particularly the case while they are driving, presumably in the belief that getting to their alphabet soup agency three minutes earlier so that they can begin their important work of making the pie smaller trumps any concerns with civility or safety on the road.

So, if you like good restaurants mixed in with lots of sanctimony, subsidized high quality leisure activities mixed in with the bizarre view that the daily battle of talking points and misleading statistics actually matters, as well as wretched traffic and bad schools, DC is the place for you. As for me, I'll take Ann Arbor anytime.

1 comment:

Claudia said...

Well I beg to differ with your beg to differ... I have lived both places. I was an RA at Brookings (I totally "blame" Barry Bosworth and Gary Burtless for sending me off to grad school. Barry gets special ire for letting me think being a female macroeconomist was a good idea.) Sure the work they do at Brookings is not "academic" anymore...not in the AER/NBER sense, but real people can read it and they engage with the press and politicians who desparately need some straight econ talk. I did my econ PhD at Michigan. I loved Ann Arbor, though for lots of stupid family reasons I only lived in A2 one of my choke six years of grad school. It's a great place to learn, but it's not perfect either (winters stink). I was appalled at UM what passed as teaching (poor teaching was the exception at Denison where I did my undergrad not the norm). And I disliked the emphasis on solving publishable problems, instead of real problems. And so off I truck to the Federal Reserve Board to forecast consumption. Well, that's been a "fun" four years. I may retreat soon to Ann Arbor just to recover from my life inside the Beltway, but I am so proud to work for Ben Bernanke and I am so proud of my colleagues. A lot of smart young (and young at heart) economists, who care about real problems. I am glad Justin enjoyed Brookings, but I am glad he went back to Wharton. I am happy U of Michigan rocks (Harvard you know is the Michigan of the East). But for goodness sake let a thousand flowers bloom. My job is hard enough without a bunch of people, including ones I respect, telling me that DC is full of not nice people with low social skills and super-sized egos. Not true. There are exceptions (a lot where I work). And you wanna talk about scary dating scenes...the economist dating scene is way, way worse!