Wednesday 17 January 2001
District of Columbia
I don’t even know where to begin with this quote from the Washington Post, Jan 1, 2001:
Senators Spar Over D.C. Voting Rights Two U.S. senators took opposing views yesterday before a national audience on the issue of voting rights for the District. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said on NBC’s "Meet the Press" that Congress must find a way to allow representation for the District in the House and Senate. He said statehood is a possibility that should be explored. But Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said statehood is not an option. The District could be considered part of Maryland during national elections, he said, but it would be a "serious mistake" to allow statehood. Nickles said the District does not have a large enough population to deserve two senators.
(emphasis added by Tino)
Of course, the humor there is that Washington, D.C. has a larger population than Wyoming, and possibly Montana.
I ultimately like Washington, something that will astound many. It’s not easy to get me to venture into that city, mainly because it’s a pain in the ass.
But it’s a very nice city, on a relatively human scale, and some of the things that make it a pain in the ass (very few freeways, for one) are also part of what makes it a good place.
It’s a terribly mismanaged place, of course; this is the cause of the slums you see on TV every so often, and the crime statistics you hear about.
Tony Williams, the mayor who came in vowing to give a damn and to end the Marion Berry years of apathy, has just about given up. He’s finally realized that it’s an impossible task, managing D.C. Instead of trying, he’s now pulling Marion Berry stunts; for instance, the D.C. government recently changed the motto on its license plates from "Celebrate & Discover" (itself horrible) to "TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION".
Which is a good point, and what this complaint is all about.
D.C. is a strange place. Originally, it was ten miles square; since Arlington was ceded back to Virginia in 1847, it’s less — about 70 square miles. About 1/3 of it is downtown DC: much of what you see pictured on the back of U.S. currency is in downtown DC. Not many people live there; much of the center of Washington, like the centers of most American cities, is deserted at night.
About 1/3 of Washington is Anacostia. While Washington is and has long been a Black-majority city, Anacostia stands out as being exceptionally Black. There are a few middle-class areas in Anacostia, and even some very wealthy enclaves, Anacostia is in general very, very poor. The unemployment rate there hovers around 20% — when the rest of the U.S. is at something like 2.1% (and 2.1% in the U.S. unemployment statistics is totally insignificant — it’s just noise).
And the other third of Washington is the western third. The western third of Washington encompasses places Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and a bunch of neighborhoods with names that will not be familiar to you unless you live in or near Washington, which I will lump together as "upper Northwest". Statistically, upper northwest DC is one of the richest places on Earth. DC has a higher per-capita income than any other city in the U.S., despite the fact that the unemployment rate in the city rarely drops below 15%. Upper Northwest is where Washington’s small "middle class" tends to live. Washington’s middle class is made up of people like Congressmen, Senators, Alan Greenspan, etc. They wouldn’t be middle-class anywhere else, though; they live in $700,000 houses, drive Volvos and Mercedeses, frequently have vacation houses, etc. Anywhere else (except maybe New York), they’d be considered rich.
They’re not considered rich in Washington, though, because that title is reserved for the elite of the lobbyists, the TV stars, the royalty who maintain houses here, etc.: the people who count their income in millions of dollars a year. There aren’t many of these, anywhere, but then it doesn’t take many.
So: Washington is populated by poor people, rich people, a very few middle-class people, the U.S. government, and a whole bunch of non-profit organizations.
Poor people don’t pay taxes. Rich people don’t pay taxes in anything like the amounts middle-class people do (the rich have better shelters for their income, and they take up more space, so there are always fewer of them per square mile). Non-profit institutions don’t pay taxes. And the U.S. government certainly doesn’t pay taxes (though it does fork over certain amounts of money to D.C. in return for "services" like paving the roads).
So D.C. is in the position of having to tax the hell out of anyone who does pay taxes. As a result, since World War II, D.C.’s population has steadily dropped.
Of the fifty-two jurisdictions reported in the 2000 census (the states, plus Puerto Rico and D.C.), D.C. is the only one that did not gain population since 1990.
Eventually, there will only be one person left living in Washington, and at the end of the year he’ll be presented with a bill for the entire cost of operating the city. And then he’ll skip town without paying.
The problem is that you pay the same federal taxes, whether you live in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. But in Virginia, your income tax is about half of what it is in D.C. Maryland income taxes are lower than D.C., but not by much; but the taxes on everything else are much cheaper. In return for the high taxes, D.C. doesn’t deliver a lot. Crime, as I’ve noted, is high. Trash is picked up or not, depending on some whim of the public works department. Streets are not plowed when it snows. And there is precisely one place for all 572,000 D.C. residents to get their cars inspected. And it’s open banker’s hours.
A lot of this can’t be helped. Even with D.C.’s high tax rates, it’s hard for the city to collect enough money. To begin with, it’s an expensive place to maintain. All of D.C. is an urban area, with high-density sewers, water lines, streets, sidewalks, alleys, etc., etc. And quite a bit of D.C. can’t be taxed. You can’t collect property taxes for the Capitol, or the White House, or the Mall, or the Smithsonian museums. The second largest property owner in D.C., after the federal government, is George Washington University. GWU, of course, also does not pay taxes. I’m not sure who the third-largest property owner in D.C. is, but I would bet it’s the Catholic Church (Georgetown University + Catholic University of America). Also no taxes. Fourth is likely American University. And so on.
The President doesn’t even pay D.C. income taxes; legally, he’s considered to be a resident of the state he comes from. Ditto Senators and Congressmen, and many of their staff members. They don’t even have to register their cars in D.C.
And to top it all off, people in D.C. don’t even get a Congressman. Oh, sure, they get Eleanor Holmes Norton, who hangs around the Capitol all day, but she doesn’t get a vote. And this is what’s behind the license plate.
Eleanor doesn’t get a vote because the GOP controls the Congress. Washington, being an overwhelmingly Black city with high unemployment, tends, as you’d imagine, to vote Democratic. (In 2000, George W. Bush got 9% of the vote in D.C.; Nader 5%; and Gore, 86%.) Giving a vote to D.C. would just be adding another Democratic vote to Congress, and the GOP don’t see why they should do that, particularly when they’ve got a Constitutional excuse not to. The first president that D.C. ever voted for was Johnson, in 1964. The District only has a government of its own (such as it is) at Congress’ pleasure. Should Congress decide tomorrow to dissolve the D.C. government, there’s nothing in the law to stop them.
Anyway, D.C. doesn’t have any Congressmen because it’s not a state; and just about all of what the Constitution has to say about the workings of the government have to do with the states. States shall have such-and-so-many members of Congress. Nowhere does it say that D.C. should have any.
This was intentional. Remember that in 1790, rivalry between states was high. The states wanted to make sure that Congress met on neutral territory, so no state would be able to claim that it was more important by virtue of being the home of the capital. And that neutral territory was the District of Columbia.
Obviously, though, the system is breaking down now. Through the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th, parts of D.C. were still rural. There were farms in Washington. Countryside. And what urban areas there were did not require the level of service that is the norm today.
Under the current definition of "city", Washington just doesn’t take in enough money to function properly, whether it’s being run by Marion Berry, Tony Williams, or an omniscient genie. And the reality of the viscious circle of taxation — combined with hostility from a Republican Congress — means that it’s not going to get any better.
But I’ve got a solution! A solution that will make D.C. one of the most sought-after addresses in the world, that will solve the taxation-without-representation problem, and one that will be palatable to a Republican Congress.
Eliminate the federal income tax for residents of Washington, D.C.
The D.C. income and property taxes would no longer be a problem, since they would be much more than offset by the lack of federal tax.
Every high-income person in the U.S. would immediately relocate their primary residence to Washington. The poor people in Anacostia, if they owned their property, could wait a few years until population pressure drove the prices up, sell their house (and the lot is sits on), and move somewhere else, no longer poor.
Any poor people who managed to remain in D.C. would have access to a much better range of services from the city, which would now be flush with cash.
And the capital city of the United States would no longer be a slum. Instead, with so many very rich people living in the city, it would be a center of culture, if not enlightenment. Wealth does not equal intelligence or culture, but rich people tend to give a lot of money to cultural institutions, and they persuade themselves that they like to do things like go to the opera or listen to classical music.
All of this could be achieved simply, though market forces, with only a small cost to the government. (Rich people are not actually a decent source of revenue for the government, even though they pay a higher dollar amount in taxes than others. The real money comes from the vast middle class, which is why you’ll never see a meaningful middle-class tax cut.)
There it is. Remember that you heard it here first, when George Will starts advocating this in a few weeks. Eliminate the federal income tax in D.C., and watch the city blossom.Posted by tino at 16:00 17.01.01