The Real Reason Washington Is Boring

The Atlantic has yet another one of those pieces trying to unravel the deep mystery of why Washington, D.C., isn’t “hip.” Rebecca Greenfield offers several explanations, many of them dubious.

For one thing, she says Washington is too expensive to be hip. That will come as news to residents of New York's Williamsburg neighborhood, where the average apartment rent has reached $3,364.

She also blames the height limit and other restrictions on development. These are indeed bad policies, but a too-tight approach to development need not squash hipness -- just look at San Francisco.

The real problem is buried deep in Greenfield’s piece, and sadly it’s not one that policy change can fix: Washington is boring because it’s full of people who work for and around the government. These people may be insufferable (Capitol Hill staffers, lobbyists) or dull (bureaucrats, lawyers), but they are highly unlikely to be hip.

I experienced this firsthand when I lived in Washington from 2008 to 2010. I can clearly remember the moment when I realized I needed to escape before the city sucked me into its vortex and turned me into an irrevocably boring Washingtonbot.

I was at a house party and a friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his. “Josh used to work at the Tax Foundation,” my friend said, “So he can tell you what state has the highest gas tax.”

“What state has the highest gas tax?” replied his friend, in an effort to make what counts as conversation in Washington.

“Well,” I said, “Often there is a specific excise component and an ad valorem component, so it can shift with the price of gas. It can be hard to say.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” replied my new acquaintance. Unfortunately, he wasn’t mocking me. He was a staffer at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and he had faced the same challenge. I advised him that the American Petroleum Institute publishes the most up-to-date tax tables quarterly.

Conversations like this are the reason that Washington isn’t hip. The city attracts government nerds and sticks them in social situations where there is no pressure to suppress the boring. This isn’t a problem that can be fixed with better planning policy. The only solution is escape.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)

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