Us versus them

In the war between residents and commuters, Megan McArdle sides with her own:

People who commute into DC have put the city into their mental “Work” basket. Wherever they are in the city, they tend to act as if they are in some commercially zoned suburban office park, where children and pedestrians basically don’t belong. . . Bicycles and pedestrians slowing down their commute seem like unreasonable intrusions.

For residents of DC, the city is the mental equivalent of your suburban culde-sac. . . When we see commuters behaving as if they were on a highway, rather than in a residential area, we get, well, a tad miffed. And as you’ve probably guessed, I think we have the right of it.

I’ll be the first to agree that people should drive safely in residential areas (or anywhere else). But I have noticed that people’s claims of high principle in battles of us versus them never last very long after they switch categories. I’ve watched people curse pedestrians and then, without a hint of irony, turn around and curse motorists moments after getting out of their car. Heck, I’ve even caught myself doing it. Dividing the world into residents and commuters sounds like a good innovation to avoid cognitive dissonance, since you don’t change categories nearly as often.

Then McArdle goes on to say something very interesting:

Commuters into DC do not even have the excuse for their sense of entitlement that commuters into New York or San Francisco have: that without them, the businesses wouldn’t be there, and the economy of the city would drastically suffer. The business of DC is mostly various non-profit, or very thinly profitable, entities that do not pay significant taxes–only a quarter of DC’s revenue comes from sales and business taxes, and of course a lot of those are paid by the residents. The business that does bring substantial revenue into DC, tourism, is not going anywhere, because they’re not going to move the Washington Monument to Silver Spring.

Nor, as some of the commuters have alleged, do their gas taxes pay for the roads. Federal highway funds provide about 20% of the capital budget for DC streets; the rest comes from those of us who live and pay taxes in the city.

As a former Pittsburgher, now living in the suburbs, this is a very familiar argument. The City of Pittsburgh is bankrupt. This is mainly due to years and years of appallingly bad financial choices that show no sign of ending. But to those who approved those budgets and to their supporters, another culprit is needed. That culprit, of course, is the commuters.

The commuters are responsible, we are told, because most of the major employers in Pittsburgh are non-profit, and therefore do not pay taxes. (ASIDE: This isn’t actually true; the non-profits do pay taxes, but they’re called “voluntary contributions”. “Shakedowns” would be more appropriate.) Consequently, all those commuters working at non-profits aren’t paying for the services they consume.

This leads to an obvious solution: annex the suburbs, or at least get the county or the state to permit them to levy taxes on them. It’s the time-honored solution for polities with financial difficulties: conquer your neighbor and plunder them. The only problem is we don’t want to be conquered.

The District of Columbia is a bit different, because the plundering is already under way. McArdle helpfully linked the DC budget (pdf), wherein I was able to find the following statistic: of the $254 million in DC revenues, $146 million is “subsidy from primary government.” That, I assume, is us.

Moreover, looking at everything in terms of taxes misses the point. The lifeblood of a city is not tax revenues, the lifeblood is the commerce and other activity of the people there, residents and commuters alike. Without the hospitals and universities, Pittsburgh would cease to exist. And without the Federal government, DC would still be a swamp.

So perhaps us versus them isn’t the right way to look at it after all. Maybe we should just say that people should drive safely in residential areas.

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