Lately, I have discovered a closet philosophy that is exercising a major force on the direction of government but which attracts little attention. Reduced to its basic equation, it comes out something like this: If it moves, regulate it. If it doesn't, tax it. And, if you can get away with it, do both. . .
Take a look at Marion Barry's legislative program for the year. Here's a city that can't even come up with a comprehensive physical plan for itself, which can't keep the developers from destroying much of what is good about this place, and its mayor wants new poers to "permit an aesthetic judgment to be made" on the design plans for sidewalk cafes.
Here's a city with a backlog of 6,000 unprocessed occupancy permits that wants you to get a license to have a burglar alarm.
Here's a city that can't keep up with the paper work generated by its rent-control law wanting to require that all commercial vehicles carry a sign listing the owner, address and special identification number.
Here's a city that lets the aged and infirm die in rooming houses because it can't carry out the most basic of city regulations, the fire code, yet wanting to license assistants to physical therapists and regulate hilicopter landing pads.
Here's a city with rampant unemployment among its young that wants to restrict further the street-vending business and raise more revenue from it.
Here's a city that hasn't gotten around to enforcing, in even a token way, its speculation tax law, yet wanting to put a sales tax on pet food.
Sure, if you read the mayor's proposals you'll find some catalytic programs, some useful new laws, some interest in efficiency, and even an occasional easing of an unncessary bureaucratic burden, but you'll also be struck by how often the left hand of government is laying down new regulations while the right hand is being held out for more money.
Anywhere it can get it. One of Barry's ideas is to end the pro-rating of annual license fees paid by newly accredited insurance companies and agents. Net estimated revenue increase: $7,500. That's nickel-and-diming the city.
The sad part about all this is that everyone means well. Ever since we got an elected government, it has been trying to show that all the years of protest and marching weren't wasted. That there really was a better way to run a city government than with colonial indifference and rampant favoritism.
The effort has been sincere, but the results have been depressing. Early on, the council in particular decided that the way to deal with social and economic problems (and with its own inability as a legislative body to administer anything) was to get it all straight on paper. You got a problem; we got a council member who'll introduce a regulation. And if it's a really big problem, we'll give you not only a spot in the code but a whole commission -- maybe even a special office under the mayor as well.
So the laws poured out. But life didn't change much. Auto mechanics continued to rip people off. Apartment owners got tired of sitting down at City Hall waiting for their rent increases and decided to go condo. The human-rights office kept quiet and hoped nobody noticed. We had just as many cars on the street, just as much pollution and the poor still stagnated -- or got evicted.
And with council members signing off on each problem as they passed a regulation, with the media flacking the regulatory approach as though it offered a cure rather than just some temporary relief, and with no one really sure how to go about dealing substantively with the ills of the city, it was widely assumed that the best way to approach a regulation that wasn't working was to restructure it, reform it, tighten it up. And so we had the Emergency Orthopedic Shoe Regulation Act (not really, but would you know for sure?), the Emergency Orthopedic Shoe Regulation Amendment and so forth. The goodies and the badies fought over each comma and semicolen, and as the smoke covered the battlefield, everyone's vision diminished and no one could see beyond the muzzle of the gun directly in front of him . . .
You can't blame just the mayor and the city council, either. The activist lobbies were as willing as they to accept the symbolism of regulatory legislation as an adequate substitute for substance, just as acquiescent in setting up baroque machineries to deal with problems, just as befuddled over the difference between words and meaning. It's one of the terrible things overpowering bureaucracies do to us; just fighting them makes us become like them . . .
Increasingly, the problems of regulation in the city have become intertwined with revenue raising. Regulations cost money. Inspectors, processors, administrators to check the inspected and processed. It's not the only reason government costs have risen sharply, but in combination with others, like inflation, it has made fund raising the co-partner of regulation as the major business of the government. There was a time when government raised new revenue by raising taxes, but as the tax teat dried up, city officials began scrounging around for clever ways to nickel and dime their constituents. Walter Washington caught onto this in the latter part of his administration. Charge $35 for an ambulance run. Raise water and sewer charges and you can still say you are not raising taxes. Etcetera.
The press doesn't pay much attention -- its basic attitude is that property taxes are the only taxes worth worrying about -- and the opposition is diffused since the new fees are distributed among different groups in the city. Everybody also has the opportunity of not using the service charged for. Don't get sick and you won't need an ambulance. Simple . . .
What has happened is this: Government, instead of relieving our pain, has become a pain. Self-righteous in its proclamation, illusory in its promise, arbitrary in its actions, ineffective in its results and insatiable in its financial need. We live in a city that writes laws but can't enforce them, which can promulgated but can't perform, regulate but not relieve, and which believes that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line to the Xerox machine. It is a joke at best and at worst a form of tyranny -- tyranny that comes a nickel and a dime at a time.