Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Taxing Commute

I like technology but like anything else if it comes without an opposable thumb it has no morality.  It's far too easy to overlook a nefarious motive when it comes with a purported benefit.

Have you ever noticed when governments have money problems it's suddenly time for all of us to "tighten our belts?" 

The latest round of whining comes as state governments are coming up short in highway funds from declining fuel taxes thus making them desperate to recapture that lost revenue.  Seems all those admonitions about driving more fuel efficient cars and spending less on "frivolous" purchases like food and shelter have finally backfired.

Capitalism, at least theoretically, is about buyers and sellers.  Offer something somebody wants and you can make a living selling it.  If a lot of people want it you've got room to make a tidy little profit and even kick a bit back to the public coffers to fix all those potholes.  It's seems only fair to give a little back for the  greater good. 

No harm in that but that's not the way it works these days.  While Joe Public is watching his wages fall and prices rise he's got less to contribute to the engines of the economy.  He can't afford the better house or the new car or the family vacation.

Too bad for him, some would say.  In reality it's too bad for everyone.  When nobody is able to buy anything nobody's able to pay taxes for the things we all rely on.  Government revenue shrinks making it harder to meet public obligations. 

Ok, so nothing's free and we all need to pay our share if we want to have nice things right? 

But we still see big oil  enjoying billions in tax breaks claiming the loss of them would be catastrophic to the economy.  They never say "whose" economy, just that layoffs would result.  Of course that would be just fine for them since financial markets always reward "rightsizing."  Put 100,000 people out of work and watch your share price go up 20%.  Blaming public policy for it is just a benefit.

Corporations enjoy tax loopholes big enough to drive a truck through all the while moving ever closer to "personhood" with few of the responsibilities of the label.  Increasingly money=speech and the fatter your wallet the more of the government's ear you get.

So what do you think is going to happen when somebody comes up with a scheme to fleece taxpayers more for doing something they already do every day. 

There's a new movement amongst state governments to try to make up for all those lost highway taxes caused by fewer fuel taxes coming in.  That's right you Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf owners! You're destroying the economy!

It seems they seek to start monitoring your driving habits and tax you based on them.  All you have to do is just allow them (state governments) to put a little black box in your car about the size of a cell phone.  It's able to record  the number of miles traveled and (potentially) everywhere you went among other things. 
I'll dispense with the privacy argument, it's been a fallacy since the dawn of the Patriot Act. 

We've accepted that our communications are monitored, our speech diminished and our civil liberties curtailed in the name of security.  After all, every great civilization leveraged fear to keep the masses in line.  Rome used armies and the Church used eternal damnation.  Government always finds a bugaboo to prop up. 

But we're not looking for terrorists in your Kia here, we're talking about yet another way to squeeze even more money out of you.  The program supposedly rewards drivers with a lower tax bill if they drive less but states are counting on more not less revenue.  That means the entire premise is  based on punishing drivers for something they have little control over, their commute.  Forget picking up the kids from soccer practice in the minivan, best get them a bus pass!

Now your every move is about to be fair game to be judged for the sake of refilling public coffers .  Let's not forget why those coffers are running dry, however.  A capitalist economy is dependent on people buying things.  When you're broke, you're not buying anything.  Almost everything you purchase has a tax so it follows that with buying down so are revenues.

It comes down to the "fair share" argument and there's a huge demographic that's paying far more than theirs and they're not living in mansions.  Schemes like taxing your driving habits violate not only civil liberties but continue to ignore the core problem. 

It's not the 40K per year cubicle dweller that's to blame.  After all, he did what he was told to do.  He drives a more fuel efficient car and accepts an ever increasing tax burden on everything from his wages to his food.  He can't participate in the economy because he's being subjugated by it. 
Rather it's huge corporate interests dodging their responsibilities, political graft and public projects woefully mismanaged.   In my state, for example,  it's common for public roadways to be built from state tax revenues and bonds instead of Federal funds. 

Rarely do any of these projects come in on budget or schedule and often when you look deeper you see why with millions in wasted public funds if not outright misappropriation.  It's an environment ripe for corruption which only makes the cry of diminished resources from state transportation departments that much more hollow.

All those fiercely independent states who eschew Federal highway funds likely do so to avoid the scrutiny of all of those "outsiders."  

There's 2 things that have become apparent to me as I've watched the population grow in my state.  The first is that it seems the Federally funded roads almost always get built on time and on budget while the state road projects can rarely make that claim. 

The second is that you can always count on there never being enough money for public projects so long as public policy keeps squeezing those who have the least to offer.
It's an economic catch 22.  A vicious cycle easily broken by correcting a lopsided fiscal construct but lacking in the political will to achieve it. 

Remember that change never happens overnight.  It's always a series of subtle events that often go unnoticed.  Paint poor public policy with the brush of patriotism or the public good and bad things will happen. 

Taxing Joe Public more for his commute while ignoring those who refuse to pay their fair share is bad public policy, period.