Is Washington Irrelevant?

Presented at Reason Foundation Policy Breakfast Washington, D.C.

One way to describe the topic of this conference is to say it's about "devolution." But that term implies that Washington holds most of the power and influence in society and is gradually giving up little bits of it. And that's not exactly true.

So I want to talk about a more powerful phenomenon -- evolution, the way we build our future bit by bit long before policy makers get around to noticing. Then I'll discuss how reactions to that evolution are creating a new political-intellectual-cultural landscape defined less by traditional left and right than by attitudes toward the future.

I'd like to start by addressing you less as a political writer than as a manager. Many of you are undoubtedly under the impression that Reason magazine is located in Los Angeles. There are good reasons to think so, starting with the address on our stationery.

But Reason's staff is increasingly scattered all over the country. We've got an editor in New York City, another one soon in Huntsville, Texas, and I myself spend a week a month in Evanston, Illinois, outside Chicago. These aren't bureaus we've set up to cover various regions -- Rick Henderson here in D.C. is our only bureau correspondent. Rather, these farflung operations represent bargains, deals we've struck with each other.

Like many other businesses in "knowledge industries," Reason is becoming something of a virtual workplace, a network of people who don't necessarily see each other every day between regular hours. It wasn't always so. When I came to Reason 10 years ago, the operating assumption was that you were in the office, at your desk, from 8:30 to 6:00, or you must not be working. That was, after all, the assumption of most American business, and Reason was pretty conventional in its management.

The question is, What changed? How did we get to the point where people could be working from half a continent away?

We could start with the Internet, of course, and that would be the hip thing to do. (Talking about the Internet would also allow me to mention, as I always do in these speeches, that Reason ran its first cover story on the regulation of cyberspace in January 1991.) But the Internet is neither necessary nor sufficient. When you're talking about satellite offices, the Net is just a speedier substitute for the phone and Federal Express.

And therein lies one clue. Better communications do matter. It matters that Fred Smith created FedEx to compete with the post office. (It particularly matters if you're based in California and have to allow a week for the mail ponies to cross the prairies.) It matters that Bill McGowan beat down the Bell monopoly to create MCI, giving us both lower long-distance bills and a huge investment in high-capacity fiber optic lines. It matters that it's no longer illegal to put a "foreign attachment" on your phone, which means you can have a fax machine or modem in that satellite office. A lot of institutional changes had to happen -- a lot of government-protected monopolies had to be broken -- before we could live in a world where little magazines like Reason could have editors scattered around the country.

But an even bigger part of the story has next to nothing to do with the government. It lies in the changing relationship between employers and employees, a relationship based not on lifetime loyalty but on shared purpose and open bargaining.

Unlike the Organization Men for whom much of Washington appears to be pining these days, Reason's editors have options outside a single organization and have commitments outside the workplace -- starting with commitments to equally ambitious and accomplished spouses. If I as a manager want to maintain the best possible staff, I have to accommodate those commitments. This represents an enormous change. One of the striking things about traditional corporate careers is that they assumed that employees would never look outside the company for other opportunities, would never even pay attention to the outside world.

And I've been a journalist long enough to remember when two-career professional couples were new, the subject of countless articles meditating on what they portended for corporate policies. I've also been a journalist long enough to remember when large news organizations were just beginning to deal with the issue internally, and not always liking the fact that they could no longer move reporters around at will.

These changes are part of larger trends in work life, trends with their roots in the dissatisfactions of the 1950s and '60s. They are, on the whole, very good trends, but like all changes they are disruptive and entail costs as well as benefits. And the culture of Washington -- the culture of political control and crisis-driven media -- emphasizes only the costs, to the point that we now have an incumbent president running in good economic times not by taking credit (deserved or not) but by telling everyone to be scared and miserable. The unplanned, out-of-control, choice-driven future is not popular around here.

Washington is fundamentally a reactive city, a place that follows the public while pretending to lead it. Once work life began to change, then and only then, did we find people in Washington rushing to say something about it: to condemn the changes, to praise them, to "manage" and guide them.

Which brings me to my larger theme: As those of you who read Reason probably already know, I believe that the traditional left-right spectrum is increasingly unsatisfactory at explaining today's political and intellectual alliances. It is much more useful to think of a spectrum -- a landscape, really -- divided between proponents of stasis and proponents of dynamism, between people who want to stop, reverse, or plan the social and economic future and people who embrace an open-ended, unpredictable, incrementally improving future created by individual choices.

One small example: Nothing expresses the conventional left-right dichotomy more than Crossfire. And the first Crossfire of 1995 was devoted to the future: not the future of the new Republican Congress, or of Bill Clinton's political career, but the future in general. The show turned into a love-in between Pat Buchanan, the host on the right, and Jeremy Rifkin, the guest on the left.

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