Government Reform

From the Top: City of Rats

"Thinking big" at the municipal level means abandoning the basics.

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Washington, D.C., is lousy with rats, and not just of the human variety. I knew that before moving here—you'd always see them scampering around sidewalks and alleys when walking around town—but it took living full-time in the city to appreciate both the awe-inspiring magnitude of the infestation and the jaw-dropping indifference of a municipal government more focused on giving free money to billionaires than addressing the capital's legendary civic rot.

On my very first trip to the supermarket as a bona fide Beltway resident, a little black rat darted between the feet of everyone in the checkout line. While the customers eeked, the Safeway employees just laughed and laughed. At my new rowhouse, I noticed packs of the critters clattering through the neighborhood's front yards, including my own. There were scores of gaping rat-holes in the dirt, and the trees were full of day-rats (otherwise known as squirrels) during sunlight hours. Some time soon after the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Rat, my pregnant wife walked downstairs and reached for her bag on the couch, and out jumped a plump young rodent.

I began making inquiries to exterminators, colleagues, and panicky urban websites, and what came back was a Stephen King hellscape. "We can trap what's inside right now and plug up some holes and establish a perimeter outside," the first rat-assessor told us. "But there's no way to keep them out of your house in this neighborhood—they just come right up through the sewers." Yep, the old rat-in-the-toilet urban legend, only this time it was true. Another exterminator just shrugged and told us to "put pressure on the city," though he knew it was futile.

My colleague Michael Moynihan had rats build a complicated nest inside the engine of his car, chewing through various wires and hoses. While throwing the contents of a second engine-nest into an open dumpster (D.C.'s trash-management tidiness being just a step or two above that of Naples, Italy) he noticed dozens of beady rat-eyes inside staring up at him disapprovingly. Recently, his wife slammed on her brakes in front of an intersection, and a rat plopped out from under the hood.

Vermin complaints to the city government were up 8 percent in 2007. In October of that year, self-described "rodent experts" Dale Kaukeinen and Bruce Colvin released a nationwide study naming Washington the fifth-most- vulnerable city to a major spike in rat population, a prediction that seems more likely than ever after yet another mild winter. The National Zoo has such a bad infestation that two adult pandas were killed by rat poison a few years back. "Mayor Anthony A. Williams declared war on the rats in the late 1990s," Washington Times columnist Tom Knott wrote in February, "and the rats won."

What made my reacquaintance with rodents much more difficult to accept was that it came during the very month that the city was congratulating itself for a gleaming new expenditure of local taxpayers' money—a $611 million stadium to house the Washington Nationals baseball team. Actually, that figure is much too low: Eminent domain settlements with in-the-way property owners added $43 million to the cost, and a handful of outstanding cases could tack on $24 million more. There were also $32 million in municipal infrastructure improvements.

So how much is $710 million in the scheme of D.C.? More than 12 percent of the city's annual local budget. (It receives an additional $4 billion or so from the federal government.) It's almost as much as the $773 million that Mayor Adrian Fenty is proposing this year to spend on the District's notoriously awful public schools. Less than 10 days before Nationals Stadium first flung open its doors, Fenty announced various remedies for a $96 million budget shortfall: postponing a tax cut on commercial property, doubling the cost of a business license, increasing ambulance fees, charging an extra 23 cents for every phone line that can call 911.

Oddly, the Washington Post and other local newspapers didn't draw any connections to the stadium, despite the $38 million in annual debt service it requires—a figure certain to go up during the current credit crunch. Perhaps the paper was too busy with its multiple gushing special sections about the facility, including such headlines as "The City Opens the Ballpark, And the Fans Come Up Winners."

It's not like the non-baseball services Washington provides are famous for their effectiveness. The potholes in the roads would embarrass a Romanian. The neighborhood papers are filled with complaints that violent crimes like carjacking and assault don't rise to the level of police interest. (In 2000, when I reported being mugged during my first visit to the city, the police told me there was nothing they could do except check the Lost and Found once in a while for my wallet.) Our local library admitted that the online book-reservation system is not tethered to physical reality, and that in fact they have no real idea at any given time whether or not they have a book.
It has taken us four visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles to come even close to registering our car locally.

Unfortunately for the rest of you, the chasm between unsexy nuts-and-bolts services and dazzling new municipal-built edifices is the rule, not the exception, of big-city governance. In Los Angeles, my former city representative, Tom LaBonge, was tolerated as an eccentric for being the only member of the 15-member City Council to express genuine interest in street repairs (though the road in front of my house still had craters large enough to hide a baby). When a coalition of black, brown, and lefty-white politicians took over city government early this decade, one local alternative weekly urged the council to "think big" and not get bogged down in mere "pothole politics."

It's a startling mindset to observe up close, as I did for two years of jawboning with civic leaders on the L.A. Times editorial board. Councilmen always talk of "doing deals" and "putting together projects," by which they mean real estate. Nearly two dozen governmental authorities—city, regional, county, state—have some power of eminent domain over the area, and they use it to build five-star hotels, reward campaign contributors, and erect schools that declining enrollment levels have rendered utterly unnecessary. Civic leaders are always proposing some new property-related "moratorium"—on converting apartments into condominiums, fleabag hotels into attractive rentals, and unused patches of hillside into homes. "Thinking big" inevitably means horse-trading bits of the city's famously onerous red tape in return for developers delivering preferred social goals, such as guaranteeing "living wage" union jobs, building "green" rooftops, and providing for "affordable housing" units.

After a while, one starts to feel like a lonely crank constantly criticizing a city for delivering ever-worse essential services while spending ever-more money on government salaries and ever-more time butting into the private sector. Especially when the private sector has given up the intellectual fight.

One of my last editorial board visits was with Tim Leiweke, who owns the Staples Center, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, and the largest new real estate development in town, a project called L.A. Live. I expected a guy who works with the famous conservative tycoon Phil Anschutz to be at least halfway skeptical about the intersection of City Hall and private real estate development, but when I asked him about his biggest frustration with public policy downtown, he replied: "The gap between the haves and the have-nots." If we don't have more affordable housing and living wage union jobs, Leiweke warned, "There's gonna be a day of reckoning here that's not going to be pretty."

Maybe that's why local politicians line the pockets of billionaire sports tycoons like Leiweke: Give 'em enough money, and intrude enough into their business, and they're almost bound to go native. Now if only they could be trained to care a little less about stadiums and a little more about rats.

Matt Welch
is reason's editor in chief.

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  1. Unleash the cats!

  2. OK, but shouldn’t the market be getting rid of the rats, anyway?

    Quasi-serious question here.

  3. OK, but shouldn’t the market be getting rid of the rats, anyway?

    Quasi-serious question here.

    Obviously you’ve never tried to actually do anything in DC. If so, you’d realize the concept of a “market” in DC is laughable. Nothing happens without a permit, no permit happens without a charge, and when (if?) issued, late, it rarely is free of issues requiring resubmission.

  4. Fluffy,

    Rat shot would work fine, however in DC it costs you an extra $500/shell (unused or used) if it is discovered in your posession. (Not to mention a handgun to fire it from, unless, of course, you work for a D-VA Senator and favorite son of Reason.)

  5. Market solution? Why not a bounty? It works for beer cans.

    Wait- don’t they have any Indonesian restaurants in D.C.?

  6. Matt, great article, very pointed. When government starts doing what it shouldn’t, it will neglect tasks that are withing it’s juristiction.

  7. Matt,

    Just partway through the article. Congrats on the offspring on-the-way! I had no idea that your lovely wife was expecting when I met her.

    On that rat thing, there is freedom right across the river, brother. Here in VA (even Arlington) there are rat and mouse traps all over (they look like plastic boxes to the untrained eye), including around federal buildings, even the Pentagon.

    If you see a rat or mouse around here it is hiding, not challenging anybody. Kinda like the difference between “your” panhandlers and “our” panhandlers, but that is a whol different deal.

  8. The Senators could have a “Bats for Rats” night.

    Bring a dead rat to the game and trade it in for one of those cool little miniature wooden bats with the team logo on it. You could use the bat to whack the little bastards on the noggin when you get home and find them sleeping in the crib with the baby.

  9. Or- you could mail your (preferably live) rats to the Mayor. Brightly colored gift wrap optional.

  10. PB,

    Wouldn’t that end up in a Radley article?

  11. Assault with a deadly rodent? Surely a reason to send in the SWATters.

  12. Oops- I guess they’re the “Nationals” this time; but those other Senators could participate. Although I don’t think you’d get very far claiming that tossing rats into the World’s Most Exclusive Millionaires’ Debating Society constitutes protected political speech under the First Amendment.

  13. I find this an amusing article to find on this website. It highlights the fact that for some problems private enterprise will not succeed and only coordinated action (through something akin to government) will succeed. I agree that government is failing to get the job done here and I agree that wasting millions on baseball is a travesty. But we should also examine this situation as a sobering example that free markets cannot solve all problems by themselves. Sometimes people have to work together as a unit to solve a problem.

  14. They could solve the problem and still spend millions on a baseball stadium by restoring freedom to the subjects of the Districe.

  15. I have lived in DC since 1976 and I have never seen a rat or a mouse in any of the houses/buildings I have lived in, nor in any store that I have been in, nor in either of the two cars I have owned, neither of which I had any trouble registering.

    Big city public services tend to be extremely poor because, surprise, surprise, a great many of the voters think that it is the job of the city to provide high-paying, no responsibility jobs. Also, lots of high-income, no family people like me, who don’t work for the city government, need relatively few services from the city and take almost no interest in what goes on.

    Solutions? Only one suggestion: eliminate the federal deduction for state and local taxes. If we didn’t get that big, fat deduction from Uncle Sam for the big, fat tax bill we pay DC, we might be more interested in what goes on in the city.

    Re the new stadium, aka Tony Williams’ monument to himself. Sadly, voters like paying big bucks to be ripped off by ego-tripping politicians and team owners. It’s almost as if human beings were irrational! Go piss on a fly and you’ll feel better!

  16. I have lived in DC since 1976 and I have never seen a rat or a mouse in any of the houses/buildings I have lived in, nor in any store that I have been in, nor in either of the two cars I have owned, neither of which I had any trouble registering.

    I have never been a resident and I go along with Matt’s observations from the many times I have ventured to the wrong-side-of-the-river.

    Helps if you know what these rodents look like in advance. Some have confused them with cats.

    Oh, in my earlier post I was *not* advocating public funded stadiums.

  17. My first thought was: Reason must not pay very well if the best neighborhood you could afford is infested with rats.

  18. The solution here is better government, not no government. Better government means spending money on pothole repairs instead of sports stadiums for teams owned by billionaires. A pure libertarian solution would result in no potholes, because there would be no paved roads.

  19. Geotpf,

    You are under the impression that unpaved roads grow no potholes?

  20. You know what I mean. The government is the most efficient way to provide certain services. Roads is one example.

  21. Cats are perfect for rodent control. When the Casa became overrun with rats we hired a tag team of two cats. The black cat and the Siamese-looking cat. Like Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, they cleaned out of every last rat, mouse, ground squirrel, & gopher in about 60 days.

    Bonus: Check out what they did to this rattlesnake I am not kiddin’ neither.

  22. The solution here is better government, not no government. Better government means spending money on pothole repairs instead of sports stadiums for teams owned by billionaires. A pure libertarian solution would result in no potholes, because there would be no paved roads.

    Since no one has actually tried (or been allowed to try) to privately finace roads we’ll never know. You can only speculate.

  23. In D.C., the philosophy was simple: We will tax you until you bleed internally, and in return we will let the streets fall into such disrepair that potholes the size of European principalities will form

  24. You know what I mean. The government is the most efficient way to provide certain services. Roads is one example.

    Not from that horribly incorrect example.

    We have a fine example of a private road right outside the DC Beltway, called the Dulles Greenway. Decent toll and very well maintained.

    I hear there is a similar road in/near LA someplace too.

    You sound like you under the impression that privately owned and maintained roads will be just like government roads, except worse.

    Is your next “example” going to be of public bus lines being superior to private ones?

  25. Oh, ye of the not-knowing-of-private-roads, back home in ast Tennessee, many of the subdivision roads are built and maintained by the developer. I won’t bother you with how the market works on that one because, if you can’t see it on it’s face, then I am not bright enough to explain it to you.

  26. East* Tennessee

  27. Privately operated *roads* are a different matter from city streets. Even as a true-blue libertarian, I’ll be the first to admit that street construction/maintenance and vermin control are legitimate municipal services. Could I construct some kind of theory whereby those services were privately provided? Maybe, but in reality such services are going be provided by public agencies, and you don’t have to be a raging socialist to advocate that.

    The big problem, as I’ve indicated before in municipal threads, is that rat control and street paving are not “sexy” issues for local pols to use as campaign fodder. If things become bad enough, then I suppose that changes. But D.C. might be described as a ‘frog in boiling water’ example. Municipal services have been so bad for so long there, that no one seriously expects the rats to be controlled, the streets to be fixed, or the schools to be adequate. Dysfunction is the accepted norm in D.C. Which is one reason I live in Arlington, VA.

  28. People like Leiweke need “living-wage union jobs” and “affordable housing” because thanks to housing bubble, his construction workers have to live in Nevada now.

  29. Privately operated *roads* are a different matter from city streets.

    Covered that in a comment right before yours.

  30. I have lived in DC since 1976 and I have never seen a rat or a mouse in any of the houses/buildings I have lived in

    You elitist; what could you know about economic justice?

  31. Is your next “example” going to be of public bus lines being superior to private ones?

    Who knows? Where in America do public and private bus lines actually compete?

  32. Step numero uno in rodent/ pest control is sanitation; is trash collection a job which cannot be successfully performed by anyone but a government entity?

  33. Rhywun,

    You MUST be kidding me. This is just some silly posting series of yours, right?

    Right here in the DC beltway there are no shortage of private busses that run similar lines as the public ones.

    In NYC the private bus lines were slowly gobbled up by the public ones, but they still have private busses running all over the place.

    Please, if you are really this unaware then just sit back and read or looks some of it up, or something.

  34. Step numero uno in rodent/ pest control is sanitation; is trash collection a job which cannot be successfully performed by anyone but a government entity?

    Predicting a series of responses to your question by people who have never had the joy of getting to chose their own trash service, or even go directly to the dump with your trash whenever you feel like going!

  35. they still have private busses running all over the place

    I’m waiting for a specific example of direct competition, so I can judge your assumption.

  36. Privately operated *roads* are a different matter from city streets.

    Covered that in a comment right before yours.

    All well and good, Guy, but in a city that was built up 100+ years ago, forcing a developer to pay the freight for roads, sewers and such is not such an easy task. And that’s how it happens, you know. Building the infrastructure is part of the permitting process.

    Suburban subdivisions are a different creature, in many ways. Oh, and even in the burbs, what happens if the developer goes out of business? I’m not saying your model is a bad one, just that it’s not a libertarian betrayal to have publicly maintained city streets and pest control. If we get to the level where those are the only libertarian bugaboos left, then I’ll be very happy, indeed.

  37. It highlights the fact that for some problems private enterprise will not succeed and only coordinated action (through something akin to government) will succeed.

    As we minarchists have always believed.

    A pure libertarian solution would result in no potholes, because there would be no paved roads.

    There is no “pure” libertarian anything. Libertarianism, unlike anarchism, is a philosophy about how to achieve a balance between the private sphere and the state sphere. State-built and maintained roads are perfectly consistent with a balance that can be justified on libertarian grounds.

  38. Rhywun,

    I’m waiting for a specific example of direct competition, so I can judge your assumption.

    There is a private bus that runs from Manassas to Crystal City every day. The people there could take a combination of trains and busses, drive, “slug” or take the private bus. The private one looks full every time I see it empty near my condo.

    The Crystal City Shops has/had a private (non government) bus that shuttled anybody who wanted to ride around from one end to the other and to other shopping areas, mirroring several public bus routs.

    Most of the hotels have bus shuttle service that will take you anyplace a public bus goes, and more, within a 7 mile radius of the hotel.

    Apartment complexes in the area contract with private bus operators to provide bus service to the METRO stations, mirroring existing public bus lines.

    All sorts of others too. Now, are you truly to expect us to believe that you had no idea of any of these examples before?

    ChrisO,

    Never said that some developer from the 1700s shouls be dug up and the current roads be forced upon him.

    How about offering to the current residents an end to their property taxes if they maintain the area as an association?

    Oh, and even in the burbs, what happens if the developer goes out of business?

    Normally they must show in their sales contracts what funds they have set aside for that maintenance. I point above to my statement of having to explain this.

    Now, seriously, have you two been so thouroughly brainwashed that this simple exercise comes across as sub-atomic physics?

  39. Guy,

    None of your public vs. private examples are comparable to each other. The private ones are either restricted to certain people or clearly NOT intended to compete with the public options. I only bring it up because you’ve raised this “public vs. private bus” meme several times now, as if one is obviously superior to the other, when in fact the two systems almost always serve different people for different purposes. IF private operators were allowed to compete directly with the public operators on the same lines – which I would heartily support – then we could compare. But as it is, your private examples are superior either by self-selection or by costing more, which isn’t particularly enlightening.

  40. Curious, do you guys get all of your groceries, television and radio from the government too? I know you go to one non-government website (unless Reason is just a front :), but do you get all of your intertubes from the government?

    What about your water?

    Electricity?

    Gas?

    Sewage removal?

    Clothing?

    Medical care?

    Transportation?

    Are you aware that everything in this comment is provided by private concerns in much of the USA?

  41. Rhywun,

    I knew you would come back with a quite lacking response.

    Please, return to your isolated world if the world of choice and competition is too confusing to you.

  42. Normally they must show in their sales contracts what funds they have set aside for that maintenance. I point above to my statement of having to explain this.

    I don’t see anything in your above statement about this, but I have heard of this before. And I have nothing against such arrangements, actually.

    Your idea about property-tax setoffs for “neighborhood road associations” is an interesting one, though. Probably unworkable, though, based on what I’ve seen of urban politics. Can you imagine D.C. neighorhood associations trying to run something useful? They can’t even run useless stuff.

    Moreover, we’ve seen the effect of such ‘outsourcing’ in the defense sector. The corruption would be smaller in scale in local services, but probably more egregious in nature.

    The ancient Romans had an interesting idea to have officeholders pay personally for municipal improvements and maintenance. Of course, they recouped their investments through massive corruption…

    Now, seriously, have you two been so thouroughly brainwashed that this simple exercise comes across as sub-atomic physics?

    Simple in theory, unlikely in practice. I can come up with all sorts of wonderful Sim City ideas, but the reality of urban politics makes such things unworkable.

  43. No, Guy, I’m trying to be reasoned. You’re just your usual troll self. Sorry I bothered – I won’t attempt to reason with you again.

  44. ChrisO,

    Then let’s start off DC with something simple, like trash collection.

    Then move onto something more ambitious, like phone service cable service without a monopoly, or private electrical service!

    Then, as developers build big, cool, giant buildings they get to begin owning the roads attached to them! Same when developers come in and rebuild whole neighborhoods.

    Oh, Rhywun, good. Let’s just pretend that people paying for busses run privately are not paying for private bus service because everybody can’t just hop on the bus, because, you know, they are going to/from the same place and running on set schedules, but we can’t compare them.

    Yep, done bothering with you too.

  45. OUCH!

    Try this . . .

    phone service cable service without a monopoly, or private electrical service!

    Then, as developers build big, cool, giant buildings they get to begin owning the roads attached to them! Same when developers come in and rebuild whole neighborhoods.

    Oh, Rhywun, good. Let’s just pretend that people paying for busses run privately are not paying for private bus service because everybody can’t just hop on the bus, because, you know, they are going to/from the same place and running on set schedules, but we can’t compare them.

  46. I liked your first version better, Guy.

    Seriously, I don’t want to get into the absurd position of defending the D.C. government.

    But really, I think that privately owned city streets (with presumably restricted access and tolls in order to pay for their upkeep) is not the best idea. If you force the street owner to open them up to the public, then they’re not really privately owned, merely subcontracted. It’s not a very good analog to private utilities.

    And yes, I’m all in favor of private trash pickup in D.C. In fact, I believe that commercial buildings and apartments already have private hauling in D.C. The city obviously can’t handle the service itself.

  47. while spending ever-more money on government salaries and ever-more time butting into the private sector. Especially when the private sector has given up the intellectual fight.

    Why wouldn’t they? There’s big money in government interference.

  48. Ah, sports extortionist Tim Leiweke, a gem of a guy who ought to be immortalized for his not yet famous truth (in speaking of his demand for Houston $$$ for a soccer playpen):

    “”We don’t want to be the only fools who privatize the stadium.””

    What the hell does he care about your rats. I’d drop a dumpster full at his front door.

  49. When I moved to Buffalo in the early nineties, it, too, was infested with rats. But the city made an unusually sensible decision and provided every household with a lidded plastic garbage “tote” on wheels. Each holds 3 or 4 30 gallon bags. Within a couple months, the rats were gone — I mean completely gone.

    The problem is that they all headed to the suburbs which have had to, one by one, implement the same tote program. It works.

  50. ChrisO:

    I’ve belonged to a couple homeowners associations over the course of my life. I find they quickly come to agreement on essentials such as roads, snow removal, etc.

    Yes, they do have trouble with non-essentials such as what color is acceptable. This is entirely predictable because these questions are non-essential.

  51. Mt Golfer: Indeed, it might be seen as a success of the American system that the most serious issue facing property owners is what color to paint the front door.

  52. I want to thank the author for crystalizing something that’s been running through my mind. I’ve been dividing the Democrats into two types: Berkley and Tammany. Berkley is activist and enthustasic and thuggishly PC. They are also the ‘big picture’ types. Tammany are brazenly corrupt, cynical and oriented toward the everyday, unspectacular services government is supposed to provide. The more Berkley those in government and civil service get (and the more the press lauds them) the worse the potholes and rats will be.

  53. Craig –

    DC already has these plastic totes for trash in many neighborhoods where there are single family homes with sizable lots (5000+ sq ft). My neighborhood is one such and we don’t have a major rat problem. The problem is the older neighborhoods with zero lot, modest sized townhouses and narrow sidewalks. In these areas, there would be no place to put the totes between collection. So residents get twice weekly collection, but still use trash bags. Georgetown has “mini-totes” and twice weekly collection – but again the small townhouses in the older parts of the city have no place to put even these small totes.

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