On Friday morning, the conservative pundit Erick Erickson squabbled with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman over the rising price of milk. Befitting their training, Krugman, an economist, was right; Erickson, a lawyer, was wrong. But as the Wire's Elspeth Reeve later noted, the pair's disagreement was really about whether the inhabitants of Washington, D.C. were too removed from the rest of the country and the real problems affecting it. As if hoping to prove this thesis glaringly true, two of Washington's most prominent economics writers spent the rest of the morning debating an issue that affects all Americans: whether the Beltway's collection of expensive restaurants truly caters to the appetites of the town's cognitive elite.
"In Washington in 2013, I can't get a decent meal," complained Neil Irwin, the economics editor of the ubiquitous WonkBlog, in an 800-word essay dedicated to the scourge of D.C.'s small plates restaurants, which apparently feature food served in portion sizes beneath Irwin's liking. "Small plates have gone from novelty — an exciting new way to eat dinner! — to cliché, a tool for punishing those who just want an honest meal and, really, an affront to civilization." He goes on to describe the hellscape of Logan Circle:
In the most interesting and bustling stretch of restaurants in Washington right now, 14th Street NW, there are by my count seven establishments, all with delicious food, that offer that food primarily as small plates (The Pig, Masa 14, Estadio, Cork, Etto, Ghibellina and Bar Pilar). Several more are on the way. This madness must end.
A little while later, Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias protested:
Neil Irwin makes the case agains the "small plates" trend that is either sweeping America or else just happens to be sweeping the neighborhood where he and I both live. Let me stand up for the defense. ... While DC diners are certainly paying an awful lot for dinner at these 14th Street hotspots, the restaurants are also very crowded. And I'd think the author of a very fine book on economic policy would recognize that one or or another the restaurants are going to charge what the market will bear.
Now, of course, both Irwin and Yglesias are operating in a certain rhetorical mode, equal parts enthusiasm and jest, which has taken an especially deep root among both political and economic bloggers. Irwin doesn't really mean he can't find a good meal in a district where 12.6 percent of households lack a dependable food supply. And Yglesias is sufficiently self-aware to note that he and Irwin can both afford to live in one of D.C.'s most expensive neighborhoods. There are no moral judgments to hand out here. Yet in such close proximity to Erickson's original charge against D.C. (as amplified by Paul Krugman), their gusto for pricey tapas restaurants — no matter how earnest! — lends that charge a certain force. Erickson, a seasoned GOP operative, is wrong and deceitful in many different ways, as Josh Barro at Business Insider explained earlier this month. But his Beltway critique could have been posed by anyone reading Irwin, Yglesias, and the latest wage figures. They wouldn't necessarily be right, and the critique wouldn't necessarily be useful. It would, however, be the product of earnest attention — which, at this particular moment, in and out of D.C., feels increasingly difficult to muster.