Monday, August 17, 2009

Wigderson goes to Washington

(Note: I'm behind on posting my newspaper column here, so I am catching up this week. Here is the Waukesha Freeman column from August 13th.)

Publication:Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:Aug 13, 2009; Section:Opinion; Page Number:10A

What I learned on summer vacation
Government’s failings evident in capital city

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

My wife and I have just returned from a trip to Washington D.C., or what I happily refer to as the “crab cakes and monuments tour.” It’s been a few years since I’ve made the trip, and this was the first purely as a tourist.

Since school children all over Wisconsin are about to be asked to write on what they did on their summer vacations, I thought I would pass along a few lessons from my own. I would just suggest that those kids should not copy any of my ideas. Your teachers will be able to tell.

Upon arrival in Washington, D.C., we quickly learned a lesson in government-run mass transit. Our nation’s capital has one of the best mass transit systems in the world, but you can’t get to where you want to go when you want to get there.

The hotel was not far from the Metro train stop at Union Station, but really too far to drag our bags. This means we had to take a taxi from the airport.

On our first day there, we had tickets on a boat from National Harbor to Mount Vernon. That involved a taxi to the boat launch. Then another taxi back to the hotel afterward.

Dinner that night was in Georgetown at one of the city’s best restaurants. Apparently, the planners for the Metro system never conceived that anyone would want to go to the oldest part of the city. Another taxi ride back and forth.

Stranded by the Vietnam War memorial on the opposite end of the mall away from the nearest metro stop, we took another taxi. You can see a pattern, and it was expensive. We finally caught a break going from the hotel to the airport. The hotel called a car service for us.

Washington, D.C., has a government like any the city. However, for much of its history the city was governed directly by Congress. Even now, Congress still controls much of what happens in the federal territory.

Despite the presence and the control of the federal government, the city still has an obvious problem with poverty. The homeless are ubiquitous, and sections of the city resemble many of the poorer urban areas around the country.

Obviously federal spending is not the issue. The really big buildings occupied by federal agencies quickly dispel that notion. Clearly more government jobs are not the answer.

Higher taxation is not the answer. We paid a shocking 10 percent sales tax on our restaurant meals. Sales taxes in Washington range from the already-high 5.75 percent to the obnoxious 14.5 percent hotel room tax.

Nonetheless, poverty remains an issue directly under the noses of those who promise so much more from the federal government (if we only allow them to spend more money).

If government has trouble with the big things, perhaps a small thing will shed some light on why.

The grass on the federal mall in front of most of the Smithsonian museums is in a really poor state. Most residents of Waukesha would be ashamed to have lawns in that condition.

One of the buildings facing the lawn belongs to the Department of Agriculture. It is a rather impressive building, visible all the way from atop Arlington Cemetery.

Most of us would assume the Department of Agriculture would be filled with experts on growing things. We would be wrong. The Department is responsible for spending large amounts of money for purposes related to agriculture, even if only tangentially.

The national park system, including the mall in front of the Smithsonian, is run by the Department of Interior. Unlike the television show “Trading Spaces,” they do not think they can accomplish a miracle growth of new grass for $100. A source working on Capitol Hill told me the department wants close to $400 million.

I immediately offered the services of my father-in-law. Just give him a new tractor, a home improvement store credit card, and bullhorn to keep the kids off the grass, and by the end of summer the mall will look like a fairway at Augusta.

He could do it on his next summer vacation.