Democracy in D.C.

Dear David,

       I’m starting to get the sense that we actually perceive things very differently, not only in Washington but in America generally.
       To begin with, I did not resort to the “tired, tired ideas” of taxing commuters and nonprofits. What I pointed out was that congressional bans on the reciprocal income tax and on taxing particular nonprofits cost Washington more than a billion dollars a year according to several reputable studies (if you have better information, let me know). Now it may very well be, to take one famous example, that the congressionally bestowed local tax break for Fannie Mae, which costs Washington more than $300 million a year, is good national policy because this billion-dollar institution will then have more money to share with homeowners around the country. But even granting that this is so, this sweetheart tax break (Fannie Mae, as you know, does pay federal taxes) redistributes wealth from the taxpayers of Washington to homeowners across the country. Shouldn’t the lost local revenue be made up for by all Americans through the federal government? We can duplicate this example dozens of times. We might want to have a federal city in which Congress cuts special tax breaks for particular powerful entities, but why should the local citizenry exclusively pay the price for this national priority? The same holds true for the ban on a reciprocal income tax, the ban on the District’s residency requirement for government workers, and so on.
       Now, you argue that federal taxes should be eliminated or drastically reduced in the District, which is a proposal that I support given the current disenfranchisement of American citizens who live in D.C. No taxation without representation still has a nice ring to it. But the rest of your proposals would polarize the District even more along race and class lines: “slash[ing] corporate taxes” and “shift[ing] money from social welfare services to cops.” You say you want to “punish the poor,” and express your hope that “rents would rise, and government services to the needy would deteriorate.”
       The District already has a criminal incarceration rate higher than every state in the union, and more than triple that of the closest runner-up, Louisiana. Of every 100,000 persons, the United States locks up 426, apartheid South Africa locked up 333, and Louisiana locks up 478. The District locks up 1,651 citizens per 100,000. The National Center for Institutions and Alternatives recently reported that about 50 percent of the African-American male population of the District is in jail or prison, on parole or probation, out on bail, or being sought on an arrest warrant. And yet, all you offer by way of advice is more of the same. The District is fast becoming a city of the rich power elite which, in truth, needs no more tax breaks; and a city of desperate and violent circumstances for the poor, who are now charitably offered more cops, more “deterioration,” and more opportunities to enter America’s grim penal colony. Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, the D.C. Control Board cannot open the schools on time, is letting the roads fall into greater disrepair, and refuses to allow even a semblance of democracy in its functions.
       Many parents now believe that the Republicans in Congress want to make the schools suffer and fail in order to lay the groundwork for passage of the “school voucher” bill, which they want to pass as a prelude to a national program.
       I do not mean in any way to deny the rightful share of the political blame for this situation that belongs to Mayor Barry. In many ways, he is more responsible than anyone for the appalling conditions in D.C. But it is important to remember that, from a radical democratic perspective, the bloated and irresponsible regime that he presided over for so many years only had slightly more popular legitimacy than the current mess. The thing we call home rule was always a halfway measure, with significant aspects of normal political sovereignty missing, with Congress hovering in the background and frequently intervening to impose pet right-wing agendas that wouldn’t fly back home, and with no public control over the design of local institutions. Marion Barry, like many chief executives of political colonies, thrived in these backward conditions and himself exploited the powerlessness of people in local Washington.
       It strikes me that it is time to start fresh, to go back to the beginnings. I have been reading a wonderful book on the founding of the District by Kenneth Bowling, which shows how the nation’s capital, even before its permanent location on the Potomac, was the site of extraordinary political controversy between North and South, centralists and small-town “republicans,” those interested in building up a fabulous commercial center for the wealthy and those who wanted to honor the political rights of local inhabitants. We need to ask whether we still want to have an entire capital city under congressional control as opposed to some other arrangement and, if we do, whether the country is willing to pay for the real costs of it and is willing to establish citizens in the capital city as equal, first-class members of American society. I’m disappointed that you think the question of democracy is secondary and that you view the lack of congressional representation as having “nothing to do with the District’s failures.” It is clear to me that two U.S. senators for the past two centuries would have made a massive difference for the District in terms of proper design of local governmental institutions, equal share of federal pork, a level playing field with neighboring states, and for Congress’ ability to deal with the national problems of economic disempowerment, infrastructure decay, drug use, and criminal justice. The District would be much better off, and so would America, had there not been two centuries of political exclusion.
       If democracy is no big deal, what’s the basis of America and why do we fight for democracy all over the world? Far from being a “distraction,” I think this is the heart of the matter. I promise in my next response to be less combative and to give a list of concrete positive ideas on how to move the situation in “America’s city” forward.

All the best,