If the US capital would move to the West coast where would it be located? Would this make more sense as China/ India grow in power? How would US policy change if at all having a West coast perspective if such a thing exists? What if it had moved previously at some point in our history? Is there anything that would have played out differently?
That is a request from George, a loyal MR reader.
It has become increasingly clear that the D.C. bureaucracy and policy world will be able to thwart most of what the Trump administration might have been thinking of doing. In this particular case I see much upside in that, but still it is a dangerous precedent. The political culture of the ruling capital city should not always hold such sway.
The longer-run problem, of course, is that putting the national government in a city makes that city “more professional” in a way that also will turn the city more toward the Democratic Party, noting that many cities in America are fairly Democratic to begin with.
Increasingly, I am a fan of the idea of distributing our government across various cities and regions of the country. so here are a few suggestions, focusing on the West:
1. The agencies concerned with economic regulation would go to Salt Lake City, Utah.
2. The offices concerned with science policy, including the NIH and NSF, would be relocated in or near Silicon Valley. I believe the ability to absorb the dynamism would outweigh the rent-seeking problem. There is already plenty of venture capital in the Bay Area, and the lure of government funds is relatively non-corrupting there. Rents are high but the total number of staff is not enormous, so give them each a big raise.
3. The Department of Agriculture would go in Honolulu, Hawaii. It would be harder to get to, and once you were there you might just go swimming. An alternative would be Twin Falls, Idaho “…near the site where Evel Knievel attempted to jump across the Snake River Canyon in 1974 with a rocket-powered motorcycle.”
4. The National Endowment for the Arts would be put in southern California, so as to be reminded that America’s heritage is one of popular culture. This would be one of the agency moves easiest to pull off.
5. The defense establishment would be clustered near Los Angeles as well, where there has long been a military connection and also a talented pool of engineers and numerous airports and access to the ocean.
6. I see New York City capture of the Treasury as an overrated issue, so if it must go out West I am fine with Denver, Dallas, or Houston, cities with a fair number of direct flights to back east. San Francisco would work in the abstract, but rents are too high there.
7. The presidency goes to Sacramento, which is already a major capital and has enough space for something larger and better-guarded than the White House. It is also not too close to the other parts of the federal government, and it would lower the relative status of the governor and legislature of California, to the benefit of America’s largest and richest state and bellwether of our future.
It is hard to predict how big a change all this would make, or how much of the change would be due to decentralization per se, rather than the movement westward. Maybe those living in the western part of the country would feel less like outsiders, while those marooned in the East simply would go insane. New England would be the new Rust Belt, and in some ways it already is the current Rust Belt. Foreign policy would be more Pacific-oriented, mostly a good thing if believe in doing something rather than nothing, but that could backfire as well.
Virginia real estate would be worth less.
As for moving the federal government out West earlier in American history, I don’t see how one might run a bureaucracy where a professional major league baseball team cannot be supported. So we’re talking 1950s or later, and even up through the 1960s. Probably the main effect would have been to ruin California even more quickly than turned out to be the case.