The Zoom-based federal government

I spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington, D.C. My white friend who earns $200,000 in total compensation as a government worker was enjoying a holiday while the Black service/retail industry workers who get $15/hr had to come in for their regular shifts. Over a leisurely holiday lunch, she explained the current structure of a typical federal agency. “Nobody has to come in,” she said, “and most of the people who work for me haven’t come into the office for months. I go in two or three days a week just to get out of the house, but it is not required.” Why wouldn’t the young people she manages want to come in and get out of their crummy apartments? “A junior programmer wouldn’t get paid more than $90,000 per year, so he couldn’t afford to live in the city anyway. One guy lives out in Gaithersburg with his brother and it is too much effort to come in. The rest of the Millennials aren’t interested even if they do live, with parental support, reasonably close to our office.”

A reader recently sent me “D.C. Mayor to Biden: Your Teleworking Employees Are Killing My City” (Politico, January 20, 2023):

At the swearing-in this month for her third term as the District of Columbia’s mayor, Muriel Bowser delivered a surprising inaugural-address ultimatum of sorts to the federal government: Get your employees back to in-person work — or else vacate your lifeless downtown office buildings so we can fill the city with people again.

This is an odd position for Mayor Bowser. She was an enthusiastic proponent of Science, i.e., lockdowns, school closure, forced masking, and vaccine papers checks. Given that SARS-CoV-2 is live and kicking, she’s the last person one would expect to advocate mass gatherings in office buildings, on the Metro, etc. The virus didn’t change; why did she?

Federal telework policies vary, but in general they’re generous — a major change from the situation that prevailed before 2020. Pre-pandemic, only 3 percent of feds teleworked daily, even as the private-sector workforce across the country had made at least some strides. After Covid, parts of the government caught up in a hurry, embracing telework in the name of public health.

For federal employees, and the public they serve, the new flexibility has some upsides. Beyond the fact that some people just don’t much like commuting to an office every day, the prospect of being able to work from home even if home means Tennessee or Texas is good for retention, since a federal paycheck goes a lot farther once you leave one of the nation’s priciest metro areas. (It also might accomplish, inadvertently, the longtime GOP goal of moving chunks of the bureaucracy away from the capital.)

According to John Falcicchio, the city’s economic-development boss and Bowser’s chief of staff, the federal government’s 200,000 D.C. jobs represent roughly a quarter of the total employment base; the government also occupies a third of Washington office space — not just the cabinet departments whose ornate headquarters dot Federal Triangle, but plenty of the faceless privately held buildings in the canyons around Farragut Square, too.

“Or another way to look at it is Metro,” the regional transit system, he says. “It’s about a third of what it used to be.”

The D.C. city government is setting an example by making its own workers come into the office five days per week? No!

He also made clear that Bowser wasn’t calling for the same back-to-normal as Comer’s legislation: Her own government currently expects non-frontline workers to be in offices at least three days a week, not five, something he said would be a good model for feds, too.

The D.C. government laptop class, in other words, can leave for the Delaware beaches on Thursday evening and not return until Tuesday morning.

When I was up in Boston, I was somewhat surprised to find a friend who is a senior federal official living there. She manages a $2 billion budget and a correspondingly epic number of people. She hasn’t been required to report to her D.C. office since March 2020.

Now it’s photo time!

A young Covidian and her dad, both masked, board our jammed BOS-DCA flight (somehow I doubt this was a required business trip!):

Want to pay $8 for a cup of drip coffee, but don’t want to take the Covid risk of a jammed flight to San Francisco? Blue Bottle is all over D.C. (this one in Georgetown):

The C&O Canal has looked better:

(George Washington was a huge investor in the Potomac Company, which sought to build a canal like the above, and thus had a massive financial incentive to bring the nation’s capital down from NY or Philadelphia to the swamps of the lower Potomac.)

The DCA VOR, out the window of an American Airlines 737 (JetBlue is no longer cheaper!):

Yachts from which the laptop class can now work (maybe the lobbyists rather than the civil servants):

The Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, increasingly surrounded by monuments to our various wars:

The Watergate, where a president whose crimes were negligible compared to Donald Trump and the rest of the January 6 Insurrectionists got into trouble:

(It’s the boring rectangular office building in the back, not the curvy buildings near the river.)

9 thoughts on “The Zoom-based federal government

  1. I do not believe in global warming. I do not care about Black Lives Matter. I hope Russia defeats Ukraine in the war!

  2. Figure the civil servant workforce would be 25% & the government contractors would be the other 75%. Government contractors are the ones who make the big bucks.

  3. Elon said his employees who wanted to continue to work from home “should pretend to work somewhere else”. I guess Grampa Joe doesn’t agree.

    • What an odd remark by Elon. Most of the open source ecosystem has been written for free by people working from home.

      Silicon Valley corporations use that output in a parasitical manner and create giant open offices which favor the politicians, most of whom do nothing but excel at pretending to work, distracting the real workers and taking credit for their output. The politicians are also great at social justice.

      I would say that in software engineering it is far easier to measure the performance of a remote team.

  4. With Bowser’s complaint, the CDC and all the other powers that be now have a full-circle idea of what happens when you tell millions of people to stay home and work from home in a postmodern, service and entertainment heavy city like Washington. They have run the Grand Experiment for two years, and now they can see the results.

    The stores from Starbucks to grocery stores, mom-and-pop shops, museums, orchestras, tourist attractions, and all of the other businesses that depend on the salaries of government-paid workers to stay out of the red will continue to suffer. Their owners will have to make the choice of staying and toughing it out until this cloud of insanity blows over, or abandon their dreams and hopes and hard work only to close up shop and move elsewhere.

    I wonder if, at least for DC, this isn’t a good thing after all? The price of prime retail real estate will spiral downward. All the people who live in places like Georgetown and spend their money on $8 per cup coffee will think about leaving and many will.

    Who needs capitalism in the Capitol? AOC has said that capitalism is unacceptable, and it’s a racist, white-supremacist, abusive and ruthlessly exploitative system that belongs in the Dustbin of History. No doubt many other members of the Progressive Caucus and many, many members of the intelligentsia in DC agree with her wholeheartedly.

    So let it fail! Let the experiment reach its natural conclusion and may DC serve as the first example of the new, capitalism-free Worker’s Paradise.

    At least in the case of DC, won’t the Federal Government be on the hook for covering their budget shortfalls and keeping them propped up? Should we just enact a new round of stimulus for Washington and other similarly-situated municipalities across the country before it’s too late? Sure, these places won’t be as attractive to the bourgeoisie and they won’t spend all of their blood-stained and climate-destroying money there if the American taxpayer can just be persuaded to bail the cities out of the crisis.

    They are following the Guidelines! As you say, the virus hasn’t changed – why has Bowser? She can’t be very much of a capitalist herself, and certainly if just one life can be saved by people working from home, why would anyone risk changing that?

    The bottom line appears to be that without the disposable income of taxpayer-funded government workers, these cities can and will go belly-up. We can solve that problem with more stimulus, targeted to replace the revenue lost and deposit it right into the city’s coffers. Heck, let’s give some to Bowser’s next reelection campaign! She’s not term-limited, is she? Or maybe find Marion Berry’s successor to lead the New Washington!

    I don’t know what the problem is! Politicians know the drill: if you’ve got a problem somewhere, whether it’s a failing city or a rogue leader on the world stage giving you trouble, don’t fight! Just aim the firehose of American taxpayer money at them. Let all the entrepreneurs and working people in the private sector in DC have to face the consequences. Screw them.

    This could be the best thing that ever happened to DC: it will become what it has always promised to be. AOC to the rescue!

    • Addendum: Earlier during the pandemic, I remember reading an article in the Washington Post that basically said you couldn’t walk through downtown DC without picking up a “contact high” from the marijuana smoke. That’s perfect! NYC has something like 1,300 illegal, unlicensed pot shops, dotting the corners of almost every busy street in Gotham. DC should just become Pot Central: instead of the Smithsonian, people will bring their children to DC to shop at Ganja Joe’s to pick up some sweet pre-rolls. They can continue to militarize the police force so people from Bethesda will be able to pull up and shop unmolested, then skedaddle out of DC to greater Montgomery Country for lunch at Panera Bread while the doobage takes hold and makes that broccoli and cheddar soup even more satisfying.

      Look! The Garden in DC at 1541 New Jersey Ave. NW has cute trading cards and toys available for kids! I wonder if Sidwell Friends is thinking about a Spring field trip?

    • Sorry, Addendum Addendum, last one: Back when MIT Technology Review posited that we are *never* returning to normal, I took them at their word, because their combined brain power wattage is surely an atmosphere-shattering lightning bolt compared to my dim-bulb firefly of an intellect (I think I’m paraphrasing Mark Twain here.)

      With all that brainpower, inherent knowledge of high technology and its implications, and all the time they’ve had, didn’t anyone think about the scenario wherein the **PERMANENT** mass exodus of work-at-homers pushes cities like DC to the brink of solvency? C’mon guys and gals! You’re letting us down!

      It’s fascinating to me that the people in the *best possible* environment from which to prognosticate wasn’t good enough to get them thinking about the situation two or three years down the road. They’re almost as bad as Accuweather forecasts! It tells you you’re gonna get an inch of snow and you wind up with eight inches of the stuff! I guess it all depends on the accuracy of the models you chose, so you can make “evidence based” judgments!

      Anyway, I think they’re going to have a hard time putting this toothpaste back in the tube. It’s looking like a one-way function: once people discover they can have four-day weekends EVERY weekend, why would anyone go back if they’re saving just one life? Did anyone anticipate the real-world impact of ZOOM?

  5. Cities provide a forum for communication and an aggregation of ideas. It’s from this melting pot that so much progress and invention occurs. Isolation creates stagnation

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