It's heartening to know that while socialism is in retreat nearly everywhere, the flame continues to burn brightly here in the District. Not since the good old days of the Barry administration have the mayor and council been so determined to lift up the poor and make the rich "give something back," while extending the wisdom and efficiency of District government to every corner of the private sector.
Top on the list is Mayor Anthony Williams's proposal to require any company that does business with the city or receives a city subsidy to hire District residents for one of every two jobs that come open. The process would entail sending notice of every job opening to the District's award-winning Department of Employment Services, which would identify the dozens of city residents qualified for the jobs who might otherwise have been overlooked by employers who have irrational preferences for workers from Springfield and Silver Spring.
This sort of "first source" agreement already exists for contractors on public buildings, albeit it with little apparent effect. So the mayor and council are hot to extend it to hundreds of other businesses and nonprofit groups, including tenants in buildings that enjoy the benefits of industrial revenue bonds, or tax increment financing or even simple zoning variances.
Once we've determined the enterprises that have so richly benefited from the largesse of city government, the mayor also wants to require them to pay a minimum "living wage" of $10.50 (or $9.25 with health benefits). Some might worry this could require taxpayers to spend more for the goods and services the city buys. But Greg Irish, director of the Department of Employment Services, says what it will really do is allow companies to operate more efficiently by forcing them to attract better employees and to retain them longer -- a strategy that apparently has not occurred to their hapless managers. He's even got the studies that prove living-wage ordinances have contributed to the economic revival of cities such as Baltimore and Detroit!
If "first source" and "living wage" are such good ideas, however, it's hard to see why the District wouldn't want to extend these reasonable requirements to even more businesses. Why not also any business that buys season tickets at the new, subsidized baseball stadium? Or doctors' offices and hospitals that treat Medicaid patients? What about law firms whose attorneys appear before District courts, universities on tax-exempt land, or even the D.C. public schools?
But Irish cautioned that there was only so far the city could push. "We have a capitalist system in this country," he explained.
Of course, there's always a risk of a race to the bottom as long as Wal-Mart is lurking out there, looking to open its first low-wage, low-price superstore in the District. That's why the council is considering an ordinance that would bar all big-box stores that don't have unions, get at least 40 percent of their revenue from food sales and have headquarters in right-to-work states that begin with the letter "A."
Guaranteeing every city resident a job at good wages is only part of the city's responsibility, however. There's also affordable housing. Renewing the city's fabulously successful rent-control program was the first step. Now the mayor and council are preparing to push through an "inclusionary zoning" ordinance that will require 15 percent of the units in all new apartment buildings and condo projects to be offered at below-market rates.
And a unanimous council has come up with a truly ingenious scheme for holding the line on Medicaid costs. The District would use its eminent domain powers to "take" the patents from the greedy pharmaceutical companies and license them to generic drugmakers, who presumably will hire unemployed District residents and sell the pills to the city at cost.
And while we're at it, what's the holdup on council member David Catania's proposal to require the mayor to come up with an affordable plan to guarantee all District residents access to affordable health insurance by 2010? Who could be against that?
Now, there may be cynics out there who question whether a city government that hasn't figured out how to educate its schoolchildren or keep an accurate count of its own employees can solve seemingly intractable problems such as chronic unemployment, rising income inequality or a health care system that is out of control. To them I would simply say: If you don't like it, move to Fairfax County, and take your lousy jobs with you!
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.