FAQ for the Holidays
Thanksgiving is around the corner, and that means lots of Washingtonians will be traveling back to Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin to explain to their relatives why they live in D.C. and don’t have “real jobs.” As someone who has made this trek and had this same conversation many times over the past 30 years, I thought it would be helpful to provide answers to some frequently asked questions:
Q: I hate Washington and everything about it.
A: That’s not a question.
Q: Why would you want to live in Washington?
A: Washington is a wonderful, cosmopolitan city. It’s got great theater, great music, great schools. There’s a vibrant downtown, a highly educated workforce and a winning baseball team. Believe it or not, Forbes recently named D.C. “America’s Coolest City.”
Q: Isn’t it the murder capital of the country?
A: That was in 1991. The homicide rate has dropped dramatically since then — to its lowest point in 50 years.
Q: Doesn’t everyone there work for the federal government?
A: Not necessarily. Federal government employees make up only 14.1 percent of the D.C. metro-area workforce. That puts us in fourth place in terms of government workers, behind Colorado Springs, Virginia Beach and Honolulu. Lots of people in Washington make their living in technology, finance, education, tourism and other industries.
Q: What about those politicians? Aren’t they all crooks?
A: No, not really. The vast majority of people elected to office really do want to serve their country. (Granted, some may have misguided ideas about what’s good for the nation, but that doesn’t make them criminals.) Unfortunately, politicians who are honest and hardworking generally don’t make headlines.
Q: But doesn’t the U.S. have the most corrupt political system on Earth?
A: We actually have one of the least corrupt political systems, and we have more ethics laws than most Western nations. Every year, Transparency International publishes its Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks the integrity and corruption of 177 countries based on expert assessments and public opinion surveys. Last year, the U.S. came in 19th place. No, we’re not Denmark or New Zealand (tied for number one when it comes to good government), but we’re not North Korea or Somalia either.
Q: Isn’t the traffic terrible?
A: Yes, it is terrible. But you know what? According to a recent survey, our traffic is only the eighth-worst in the country. We don’t come close to L.A. or San Francisco when it comes to traffic. Everyone just thinks D.C. traffic is the worst because we complain louder.
Q: Don’t you have the hottest summer weather on the East Coast?
A: Nope. Like I said, we just complain louder.
Q: Why does the government spend so much money on foreign aid?
A: The U.S. government spends almost nothing on foreign aid. Maybe 1 percent of federal spending. Most of your tax dollars go to Social Security, health care and defense. If you visit the White House website, you can actually plug in your annual salary and find out where your tax dollars are being spent. And I found this cool policy backgrounder from a think tank that …
Q: Not interested. What about all those lobbyists? They can’t be good for democracy.
A: It depends on how you look at it. Our political system is set up to encourage open debate of public policy. Everyone gets a chance to speak up, and that means everyone in some way is lobbying for their own cause. There are groups that support highway construction funding, and there are groups that oppose it. It’s the same with every other issue. There are even groups whose cause is to get rid of all the lobbyists.
Q: I would join one of those groups. Are you a lobbyist?
A: Nope, but I understand why you feel that way. “Lobbying” has become a pejorative term that invokes images of Jack Abramoff, fancy golf trips and bags of money being passed under the table. Given some of the high-profile scandals of the past 20 years, it’s no wonder people distrust politicians and lobbyists. But you’ll find most lobbyists are honest people. The quickest way to end your career in this town is to get a reputation for being unethical.
Q: Have you seen “House of Cards” on Netflix?
A: Yes, and I hated it.
Q: You hated it?
A: Yep. Now, I admit I only watched a couple of the early episodes. But I couldn’t stand it when Kevin Spacey looked at the camera and said things like, “I love that woman like a shark loves blood.” Sure, it’s great drama in a cheeky sort of way. But I hope people aren’t basing their opinions about Washington on this.
Q: Why would someone want to work in D.C.?
A: It’s an exciting city, despite all the politicking and partisanship that frustrate everyone. You can meet bright and interesting people. You can work for a cause and make a difference. You can even apply the skills and knowledge you picked up while getting a liberal arts education.
Q: You picked up skills at a liberal arts college?
A: Very funny. But I did gain some skills in return for all that tuition money — skills like writing and problem solving. And knowing how to smile and sound reasonable when friends and relatives ask me the same questions every year.
Comments? Email me.