I’m waiting for a huge piece of code to rerun and I should not be working on a cognitively intensive revise and resubmit on a Friday afternoon, so I want to go back to what I originally went to grad school for — urban economics and economic development — for a minute to respond to a seemingly populist and really dumb proposal to strip the federal government of expertise proposed by Andrew Yang.
Let’s think about Washington DC’s primary export industry as government and more specifically federal government leadership and top level analysis and management. The federal government is an industrial cluster in DC much like venture capital fueled technology firms are an industrial cluster in San Francisco-San Jose region, bio-tech is a cluster in Greater Boston and steel was a cluster in Pittsburgh. Clusters are interesting in that they are often positive feedback loops until they run into hard constraints or a massive external shock.
There is a huge literature on the positive feedback loops on economically successful clusters. One of the major drivers is that a cluster creates a rich and thick labor market. This means that at any given point, there are lots of good jobs available to anyone who is qualified to work in the cluster. People aren’t locked into a “good enough” job because that is the only job available that utilizes any specific human capital/education/tacit knowledge available to them, but that people can readily shift between positions to maximize their personal gain. In Washington DC, if someone is a research economist, there are a hundred opportunities within seven Metro stops of their current place of employment. If someone is a research economist in Sault Ste. Marie, there may be one or two within an hour of their current place of employment. The same applies for geneticists who work in Boston vs. geneticists who work in Boise.
Employment concentration creates specialization and optimization. It allows for work to be more productive as the cluster grows and the labor market becomes even thicker and deeper. This is all pretty standard.
There is another labor market point to make; large urban areas have lots of jobs that are not in the primary export industry. This could matter for me at some point in the future as I could easily see myself spending a couple of years working for either the federal government in the DC-Baltimore region or working for an entity that directly services the federal management and analysis industrial cluster. My wife has a skill set that could translate into this industrial sector but her current experience is in a general professional environment. If my options for moving to DC for federal work or Boone, North Carolina, my wife will far more readily find a good enough job in DC.
Dispersing the vast majority of the DC/Baltimore/NOVA government management and analysis cluster that has been built up over four generations is a great way to make the federal government less efficient and less attractive to top tier talent especially if the dispersion would be going to smaller urban clusters with far shallower and thinner labor markets.