Monday, March 9, 2015

Systemic dynamism

Fascinating. One's temporal frame of reference is squishy.

I attended Georgetown University in the early 1980's. At that time, Washington was 70% black and governed by Marion Barry whose career was marked by drugs and corruption allegations. D.C. was a basketcase propped up by huge subsidies from the federal government.

As a young and naive student, this simply seemed the way of the world and unlikely to change.

I just came across something I knew was in process but had not realized had now come to pass, A wave of mostly white voters is reshaping the politics of D.C. by Paul Schwartzman and Ted Mellnik. Schwartzman and Mellnik don't specify in their article but it appears from reports elsewhere as if Washington is now 45% black and 55% white and other.

As is often the case, I think the reporters are focusing on the wrong issue. It is not white and black. It is productive and nonproductive, it is employed versus dependent, it is professional versus dysfunctional. Sure there is a racial element, but that is not the underlying cause of these changes. The demographic changes in D.C. bode well for greater transparency, more citizen engagement, improved effectiveness, etc.

I have never seen a study demonstrating this, but have long believed, that the US usually misidentifies class issues as race issues. True for D.C. and for many other cities. Correspondingly, I have also long believed that the civic health of any entity is highly dependent on there being a healthy competitive political system with transparency and accountability. One party cities, counties and states, where there is little real competition, and therefore little real choice for the electorate, are always prone to rent seeking, regulatory capture and outright corruption.

Washington was not a basket case in the 1980s because it had an overwhelmingly black population. It was a basket case because it was dominated by a single political machine (in this case the Democrats) which had little transparency, accountability, or competition. It was a financial basket case because it had a low labor force participation rate, a low percentage of professionals, and a high population churn (no roots, no civic engagement).

Those things are changing. Local politics appear to be becoming competitive. More light appears to be being shone in murky corners. Everyone benefits.

All of which is a little off topic. What grabbed my attention initially is the simple dynamism of the US. In 1980 everything looked fixed and unchangeable. You can't capture all the nuances and subtleties in a single number, but the proxy of 70% black to 45% black in a mere 35 years serves to highlight the extent to which a long view facilitates recognizing how dynamic things are and that everything that appears mired and fixed in a static condition can really change quite quickly.

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