Washington was interesting and depressing at the same time. The part around the
White House, where I went to a meeting of “business leaders” from Phoenix, is green and manicured, and reminded me of the area around the government buildings in Delhi, where the beautiful architecture of the Raj is maintained by low-wage workers, and the surrounding areas are in poverty. I stayed in a hotel in the NE section instead of the NW, and I got to see a whole lot of what’s NOT around the government buildings.
Everyone in Washington seems to be either a government contractor or someone working for the government,and the people who work for the government often had worked there 20 years or longer; a government job is definitely a job forever. The Uber drivers I talked to explained how the town works: you try to get your government job, but then you do things on the side to make more money.
Although we had to go through metal detectors, get security clearance, and show ID, a meeting at the White House doesn’t really mean a meeting at the White House. It means the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is right next door –the building in which the White House counsel, the public engagement people, the Secret Service and the National Security staff are officed. The EEOB is a very beautiful old building, with high ceilings, marble floors, and power outlets in the floors. We were in a large conference room up on the fourth floor, where an apparently unending series of meetings takes place.
The people we with were part of an organization called Business Forward, which was founded by Jim Doyle to engage business leaders across the country in public policy/. They’ve been holding meetings and trying to find out what’s going on in various hard-hit places across the US. They invited various people in the administration with expertise in housing energy, and economic development to talk to us and hear from us. Everybody was an Assistant Secretary.
I get the feeling they think Arizona could be a swing state this year, so they want to make sure the have enough “influencers” aware of what the administration has already done or plans to do — so that we can help get Obama re-elected.
The problem is, there isn’t very much the federal government can do to help us. Our problems in Arizona are with the state and local governments. Our education system, which took 30 years to destroy, is going to take 30 years to transform, and in the meantime we don’t have the right people to fill the software jobs we have created.
There’s not too much the federal government can do about a shortage of technical cofounders for our entrepreneurs– especially since they seem unwilling to tackle the immigration issue. For now, we are going to have to import our talent in order to get anywhere, at least in the part of the community I serve. Every entrepreneur I know has openings for software developers and can’t find them. Many are outsourcing, driven to it by a dearth of local talent. I don’t care who needs a job in Phoenix, if they can’t program in PhP, they’re not appropriate.
I ate by myself both evenings at hopping bars full of young people talking about their jobs. I love to do that, because I can eavesdrop on conversations and learn stuff.
There is so much public money floating around in Washington; the streets are clean the buildings are new and beautiful or renovated, and it is clear that federal government has been the only sector of the economy that’s been growing. Everyone either gives or gets government contracts. It’s also clear that Obama lives in a bubble and can’t possibly get out. In Washington, you get everything you want — including two dozen people who take two or three days out of their lives to fly in at their own expense to meet with you. But that doesn’t give you a sense of life in the “real” economy.
So while I’m glad I went, I suffer no illusions that anything will happen out of this meeting. Good people in Washington will continue to try to dream up programs and throw money at them, but they won’t be the right programs to help the right people, because there’s nothing they can do to help us.
We have to help ourselves.
(Note: @vivekwadhwa, who was in Washington the same day I was for a different meeting, wrote his opinion here. I swear, we didn’t plan it!)