Outside the Amtrak Window, a Picture of the U.S. Economy
As anyone who rides Amtrak between New York and Washington knows, the trip can be a dissonant experience. Inside the train, it’s all tidy and digital, everybody absorbed in laptops and iPhones, while outside the windows an entirely different world glides by. Traveling south is like moving through a curated exhibit of urban and industrial decay. There’s Newark and Trenton and the heroic wreckage in parts of Philadelphia, block after block of hulking edifices covered in graffiti, the boarded-up ghost neighborhoods of Baltimore made familiar by “The Wire” — all on the line that connects America’s financial center and its booming capital city.
The weirdness of this juxtaposition is hardly acknowledged anymore, because we’ve all had a few decades to get used to it. But for most of the 180 or so years of the train line’s existence, the endpoints of this journey — New York and D.C. — were subordinate to the roaring engines of productivity in between. The real value in America was created in Newark’s machine shops and tanneries, Trenton’s rubber and metal plants, Chester’s shipyard, Baltimore’s steel mills. That’s where raw material was turned into valued products by hard-working people who made decent wages even if they didn’t have a lot of education. Generation after generation, and wave after wave of immigrants, found opportunity along the corridor. Washington collected the taxes and made the rules. Wall Street got a small commission for turning the nation’s savings into industrial investment. But nobody would have ever confused either as America’s driving force.
This model was flipped inside out as Wall Street and D.C. became central drivers, not secondary supports, of the nation’s economy. Now, on its route between them, the train passes directly through or near 8 of the 10 richest counties in the United States, but all of this wealth is concentrated near the endpointsof the journey: Manhattan’s satellites in northern New Jersey and the towns where lobbyists and government contractors live in suburban Virginia and Maryland. This is a geographic representation of a telling contradiction. For the past 30-plus years, through Republican and Democratic administrations, there has been much lip service paid to the idea that the era of big government is over. Long live free enterprise. And yet in the case of those areas surrounding the capital, wealth has gravitated to the exact spot where government regulation is created. Why? Because many businesses discovered that renegotiating the terms between government and the private sector can be extraordinarily lucrative. A few remarkable books by professors at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business argue that a primary source of profit for Wall Street over the past 15 to 20 years could be what I call the Acela Strategy: making money by exploiting regulation rather than by creating more effective ways to finance the rest of the economy.