Apparently, Washington, D.C. is in the running to host the 2024 Olympics. The Washington Post editorial board gave the idea its tentative blessing Monday, so before this Olympic bid develops into a serious thing pursued by serious people, let’s be clear about what a terrible idea this is. It’s up there with attempting to remove your own gallbladder with an oyster fork.
I’m angry just thinking about this. No. No, no, no. No in italics. The ghost of Mother Teresa just heard about D.C.’s Olympic bid and shrieked from her grave, “Won’t somebody think of the children!” As far as venerable Greek traditions go, I’m already offering up a smoky sacrifice of rich oxen thigh meat in the fervent prayer that Zeus himself wings down from Mount Olympus and stops this from happening, as it would result in carnage not seen since the Achaeans laid siege to Ilium.
Alas, I’ve lived in the Capital area for 15 years, most of that in D.C. proper, and what I want is rarely given the deference it deserves when determining what goes on around here. Against my better judgment, I’m going to enumerate the ways in which the proposed D.C. Olympics are a civic abomination, in the futile hope the abyss stares back at me for once.
The Olympic Traffic Congestion
This weekend, I was introduced to a lovely retired couple who had recently moved from rural Idaho to be closer to their grandchildren in Oregon. They complained about the traffic. In Portland. As an Oregonian turned resident of the D.C. area, I politely deferred to their quaint ignorance and gazed out the window in the direction of the Beltway yonder. The word “traffic” rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. And outside, the low hum of engines surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion of automobiles.
I may be over-dramatizing my recollection a bit, but if Joseph Conrad were alive today there’s a case to be made that the Beltway is a more ominous passage than the Congo river. D.C. traffic is inarguably the worst in the country—year after year. (On the plus side, we only rank third in terms of worst drivers.) If you don’t live in D.C., you simply don’t know our pain. There are places right by my house that I don’t go. Ever. Because of traffic. I scrupulously avoid freeways unless it’s late at night or a weekend. As for arguably the two most important arteries around here, the Beltway and Route 66, I honestly cannot remember when I was on either road and I wasn’t stuck in traffic for some period of time, whether it was late at night or a Sunday afternoon.
By way of explaining what a Dantesque situation this is, I live in an old house where I inherited a lot of old light fixtures that use a few atypical light bulbs. They are constantly burning out, thanks to the house’s old electrical system. My wife, who has much worse eyesight than I do, is rather bothered by this. So even though Home Depot is only 4.8 miles away, if I try and drive there on a weekday before or after work, I could likely walk there faster. So my wife spends days at a time fumbling around a dim house like Mrs. Magoo until I can take advantage of weekend traffic. In the rest of the civilized world, such errands are a breeze. But since I live inside the Beltway, I have to schedule my entire week around picking up light bulbs.
Now, the last summer Olympics in America brought two million visitors to Atlanta, and that city was much more distant from the major population centers of the Boswash Megalopolis. Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which brought roughly a million people to D.C., shut off all roads into D.C. a day in advance and cleared the shelves at my local grocery stores on Capitol Hill.
If you bring more than two million visitors to D.C. for a few weeks, I guaranteethe area’s already tenuous grasp of law and order will break down in a way that makes “Mad Max” look like a documentary. D.C. denizens will start running people off the roads and spontaneously reorganize into a hierarchic tribal dystopia based on who’s hoarding the most gas, with those at the top fending off the mechanized cannibals at the bottom.
Oh, but D.C. has one of the best public transportation systems in the country, you say! This brings me to the next problem with the D.C. area.
The Olympic Incompetence
On the surface, D.C.’s Metro system is the envy of city planners everywhere. The Metro is well laid out, even if much of the area is still only accessible by car. And for decades after it was built, the Metro ran quite smoothly and was remarkably safe. It was also relatively cost efficient, insofar as every public transportation system is something of a boondoggle. However, Metro’s success was despite the fact that the D.C. area has consistently been governed by mountebanks and petty thieves. It was only a matter of time before the general mismanagement of everything else around here caught up with the Metro.
After starting up in 1976, the Metro system had exactly one collision during the first 28 years of its existence. That was in 1996, it happened during a blizzard, and no one was hurt. Since 2004, there have been three collisions. In 2004, due to driver error, an out-of-service train rolled backwards into a station, injuring 20. An investigation concluded that, had the train that was hit been full, it would have killed 79 people. In 2009, two Metro trains collided during rush hour. Nine people died and 80 people were injured. Operator error, brake failure, and faults in the computerized signal and operation system were all possibilities, but they never really pinpointed the cause of the crash, which is reassuring. Just a few months after that, there was another collision, also driver error, in an empty rail yard that did $9 million in damages. Since I’m a daily Metro rider, the sudden increase in accidents is certainly alarming.
Beyond the possibility it might kill you, complaining about our once laudable Metro system has become something of pastime in D.C. Delays and breakdowns are regular occurrences, as are basic malfunctions such as pulling into the station and the train operator opening the wrong set of doors. And then there are the escalators, which are a legendary source of frustration. There has literally not been a day in years where dozens of the Metro’s 588 escalators were not out of service (38 are non-functioning as I type this). Some are out of service for months at a time. A huge part of this escalator problem is union work rules, so it should get resolved sometime between never and the Ragnarok.
And while the Metro system has continually degraded over the last decade or more, it’s hoovered up obscene amounts of money from taxpayers and riders. When I first started taking the Metro to work 15 years ago it cost $2.20 round-trip. Now if I take the Metro during rush hour, it’s nearly $8 every day. A couple of years ago, I actually calculated that given gas, insurance, and basic maintenance, I could drive my old Honda Civic to work and it would be cheaper than riding the Metro.
So why am I talking so much about the Metro? Well, given all these horrifying issues, it’s still the best city service we have to offer. The scene at the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles on any given day looks like a multi-ethnic version of the Mariel Boatlift, the court system is so overwhelmed that when you go to Jiffy Lube they put a sticker on your windshield that says “Every 3,000 miles report for jury duty,” and if, God forbid, you want to get permits to do anything, the paperwork gets processed so slowly you’d think it was all being read aloud by Ben Stein. On the opposite side of the equation, punitive revenue collection services, such as parking enforcement and the city’s extensive network of traffic cameras, operate with Teutonic efficiency. In 2011, D.C. issued issued 462,601 traffic-camera tickets in a city of 617,996 residents—and they’ve added cameras since then.
If you want to go ahead and stress test this crumbling infrastructure and civic incompetence with a rapid influx of millions of visitors for weeks at a time, you’d better be prepared to accept the ensuing, and possibly literal, train wrecks. If it comes to this, I’ll be the guy pointing and laughing from my bunker in West Virginia.
The Olympic Corruption
If it seems impossible to get things done in D.C. in a way that is quick or efficient, there is a notable exception. It generally involves discreetly handing envelopes of cash to elected officials.
Most people think the FBI is headquartered in D.C. because that’s where all the other federal agencies are. I suspect the real reason they’re here is they investigate local officials so much it saves a fortune in travel expenses. You’ve probably heard about former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, whose corruption is notable mostly because it involves crack smoking. But like a lot of cities, the lion’s share of D.C.’s corruption involves land use and staid development deals. And in D.C., it’s gotten especially brazen.
Take D.C.’s current and soon-to-be-outgoing Mayor Vincent Gray—please. Since taking office, he’s been under federal investigation. Why? Because in 2010, Gray defeated previous Mayor Adrian Fenty by secretly funding the campaign of a third candidate, Sulaimon Brown, who only ran as a means of siphoning votes away from Fenty. Gray later gave Brown a $110,000-a-year city job. Gray’s 2010 campaign treasurer eventually pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally diverting campaign funds to Brown, and to obstruction of justice for shredding the paper trail. Another Gray campaign aide pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about diverting money to Brown.
We’re just getting warmed up. Funding of this illegal shadow campaign was made possible because a local D.C. businessman and real-estate magnate, Jeffrey E. Thompson, was illegally funneling thousands of dollars to Gray’s campaign. After he was elected, Thompson gave $40,000 to a “close personal friend” to finance home improvements for Gray. According to the U.S. Attorney, Thompson had plans to funnel as much as $660,000 to Gray’s campaign, and Gray tried to hide his association by referring to Thompson by the code name “Uncle Earl.” (Note that Thompson has admitted his involvement in a scheme to funnel $600,00 in unreported contributions to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And I’m sure this is a coincidence, but in battling his corruption charges Gray has been represented by Robert S. Bennett, the same lawyer who defended Bill Clinton in l’affaire d’Lewinsky.)
So while this legal morass was mercifully subsuming Vincent Gray’s political career, did it humble him in the slightest? That’s just not the way D.C. politicos roll. As it happens, the FBI has outgrown its headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in the District. So the FBI has been looking for nearby locales. So Gray put together a deal to offer up ten acres on the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C. for a new FBI headquarters. This is not a very nice or safe part of town, so a major new development and law enforcement presence would cause the value of the adjoining land to skyrocket. Care to guess who owned the adjoining land? Why yes, good ol’ Uncle Earl! To repeat, while under FBI investigation for engaging in a criminal conspiracy, the mayor of D.C. tried to persuade the FBI to accept a land deal that would directly benefit the man he is accused of conspiring with.
Again, this is just the high-profile stuff. Lots and lots of subrosa corruption is just a fact of life in the D.C. area, and it rarely makes the papers. I was recently in Salt Lake City for the first time in years, and I was astounded by the amount of development that was done to accommodate what was undoubtedly a much smaller Olympics. If you empower local officials to turn the city upside down and strike deals to build dozens of new facilities to accommodate the Olympics, it’s going to take D.C.’s already intolerable corruption and weaponize it.
But hey, I’m sure the unimpeachable moral standards of the International Olympic Committee will keep D.C. officials from being tempted to enter into any corrupt deals. Right? Right?
The Olympic Cost
Of course, it bears mentioning that the biggest forms of graft are usually legal. When contemplating the cost of hosting the Olympics and building all the necessary facilities, one would do well to look at D.C.’s most recent experience building a large athletic stadium. In 2006, D.C. built Nationals Park at a cost of $784 million—the cost overrun on the project was a mere $173 million. Like all God-fearing, apple-pie-loving Americans, I like going to baseball games as much as the next guy. But since Nationals Park was built it has been a fiscal black hole so dense taxpayers cannot escape. (On that note, it bears mentioning that every city that’s hosted an Olympics recently has taken a big financial bath.)
Yes, I know—D.C.’s not unique. Municipalities all over the country have entered into all kinds of usurious relationships to subsidize stadiums for the extraordinarily profitable industry of professional sports. True to form, the Nationals organization is directly contributing about $15 million a year to the city, compared to the $38 million in debt service the city pays on the stadium every year. And since the rent the Major League Baseball team is paying to the city increases at a rate well below inflation, the amount they’re giving the city is going to actually decrease over time.
But as it’s wont to do, D.C. seems to have found new ways to make a terrible idea even worse. To pay for the stadium, D.C. conceived of and implemented perhaps the dumbest tax ever devised, and that’s saying something. The city implemented a “Gross Receipts” tax on all businesses in the city that take in more than $5 million a year, and that tax goes up for businesses earning more than $16 million. This is on top of federal and state taxes—and note that D.C. already has one of the highest tax rates in the country.
Anyway, note that the key feature of the tax is that it’s on “gross receipts” over $5 million. So if your business makes $4,999,999 in pure profit, you pay zero tax. If you take in $5,000,001 revenue against $4,999,999 in operating expenses, you pay the tax—despite pulling in two bucks in profit. Due to the inherent unfairness of this tax, D.C.’s beleaguered businesses went into open revolt when they first started collecting it in 2005. D.C. city council member Adrian Fenty decried the tax, saying:
There’s no good reason why one business should have to subsidize another person’s business…Business owners have as much claim to the renaissance of D.C. as anyone. But no one is buying them a headquarters or building.
Then Fenty became mayor in 2006. The gross receipts tax generated $129 million for the city between 2006 and 2010. Not a dime of that money went to pay for the stadium. Fenty used the proceeds to paper over the huge holes in the city budget. And though the gross receipts tax was supposed to be a temporary stadium funding measure, Fenty made it permanent. Heaven knows what his successor, Gray, did with that money.
Again, it’s going to cost billions of dollars to build facilities for the Olympics. After watching the Nationals Park saga unfold, I can’t begin to fathom what amazingly costly and vindictive schemes officials are going to cook up to finance construction of dozens of new athletic stadiums and support buildings.
But don’t worry! The Olympics in D.C. will get paid for, all right. You can always count on D.C. to be snatched from the jaws of fiscal ruin by the federal government. That’s why the federal government picked up the tab for $82 million of the costs associated with Nationals Park. That’s why President Obama’s proposed budget this year included $150 million for the D.C. Metro. I’m sure Kansas taxpayers are super-psyched to pay for a horribly mismanaged local public transportation system they never use, on the understanding that the federal lickspittle and turnspits in Washington, D.C. have as convenient a commute as possible when they go to their $133,000-a-year jobs where they otherwise sit around all day trying to find creative new ways of sodomizing ordinary citizens and calling it “progress.”
How the D.C. Olympics Would Play Out
With that in mind, here’s how the Olympics in D.C. would play out. D.C. secures the Olympics by greasing palms at the International Olympic Committee. Since they’re experts in taking bribes, presumably they’re pretty good at making them. Every local politician and real estate whisperer in D.C., Maryland, and Northern Virgina then suddenly becomes a whirling dervish. Deals are struck right and left, and the local media cheers on the massive development projects by overhyping their supposed economic benefits. Inevitably, some scrutiny will be brought to bear on what’s going on. There will be huge cost overruns and every building project will be behind schedule. The Rube-Goldberg financing deals and tax schemes will start falling apart. Whichever shyster is mayor of D.C. in 2024 will be led away in handcuffs when it’s revealed he eminent-domained a block of affordable housing to build a luxury hotel next to the velodrome for the benefit of his very own Uncle Earl.
At that point it will finally become obvious to everyone that the impending Olympics is a calamity. By then, it will be too late to turn back. The media elites will finally become The Voice of Reason. The Washington Post will write an editorial begging the federal government to backstop the cost of hosting the games, lest this debacle become “a blot on the national escutcheon” or some such high falutin’ nonsense. Having long since repealed the Twenty-second Amendment, President Hillary will then authorize $30 billion to pay for the games, and she’ll do this by going on live television and burning the Government Accountability Office memo saying she can’t spend that kind of money without congressional authorization, just because she can. Ratings for the Olympics will be stellar, because the legions of Americans who lost their jobs to robots will be at home all day, drinking their beer, and glued to their HD4K TVs. And when genetically modified North Koreans win an unprecedented 412 medals, a once-mighty country will shrug in assent.
But the spirit of America will live on. At the very least, I’ll be standing on top of my bunker in West Virginia shaking a fist at the heavens and screaming loud enough for the 50,000 parked cars on the Beltway to hear: “YOU SHOULD HAVE LISTENED TO ME!!!!”