You’ve heard this story before: A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the water.
And you know how it ends, too, I’d guess. It’s a story that has long fascinated me, so a while back I cooked this up:
You and I, standing on a riverbank
Desperately searching for a way to cross
“Take a ride on my back,” I said. “I’ll thank
You not to sting me, lest our lives be lost.”
Halfway across and I’m optimistic
That you’ve transcended your scorpion self
When suddenly there’s a prick and a stick
And that’s never good for a froggy’s health
So sudden we sank, and although you tried
To escape, we were so firmly attached
Both bitter, broken; no wonder we died
With flaws and faults that were perfectly matched
But if I’m honest, I wonder which one
Of us was frog, and which was scorpion.
Naturally, I had a particular woman in mind when I wrote that, but the analogy is true for more than romance; it’s true for those of us who live and work in the United States, particularly if we are inhabitants/inmates of the middle class. We’re the frogs who cross the river of commerce, paddling dutifully in spite of obstacles ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. On our backs, of course, is our government. It always says that it’s trying to help us. Sometimes it even believes it. Its paid apologists in the media and elsewhere will always say that “we are the government”, as if a group of over-privileged mountebanks who don’t even have to use the same healthcare regulations they’ve forced on the rest of us represent the bulk of Americans in any but the most nominal fashion. Still, when the rubber meets the road, they’re on our backs ready to sting us to death the minute we hit deep water.
Here’s the latest idiocy to come out of our pincer-packing passengers: As I reported earlier this morning, the Federal Highway Fund is about to run out of surplus money. It’s funded through a static 18.3 cent per gallon gas tax. Yesterday, the Washington Post published a Wonkblog on the subject.
Before we go any further, notice the subtle framing implied by “Wonkblog”. The phrase “policy wonk” implies someone who is smarter than you or I might be. It’s typically applied to completely charmless would-be tyrants like Michael Dukakis, in order to suggest that they, and only they, are intellectually competent enough to determine what’s best for the rest of us. “Wonkblog”, therefore, implies that you’ll be reading some serious thought about an issue, instead of the type of ignorant pandering to the bleating, inbred electorate the use of which each party believes is limited to its opposition.
Alright then. Let’s check out the serious thought. The piece is entitled “Why we need to raise the gas tax — and then get rid of it.” First off, let me offer this:
To people who write for the Post, the government is “we”. To most Americans nowadays, the government is “them”. Fifty years from now, when our grandchildren are burying the bodies that will have been piled up as a result of that simple difference, it might be useful to remember how often it appeared in print in our day. The Post’s Emily Badger interviews a Democratic congressman from Oregon and fails utterly to badger said congressman, instead giving him a platform to gush about his plans to replace the gas tax. Let’s hear first about why said tax needs to be replaced:
The growth in vehicle miles traveled has actually declined for nine consecutive years. The increase in fuel efficiency has been pretty dramatic. And then we’ve got highway construction costs that have not been declining.
Emily lets this go, but I’m not inclined to. If we’re traveling less often — because we’re experiencing the Lowered Expectations lifestyle of the recession without end — why haven’t highway construction costs declined? If we are using the roads less, why haven’t we seen a corresponding decrease in repair costs? There could be reasons for it, ranging from the deferred bridge maintenance about which we’re always hearing to an increase in costs for petroleum-based paving materials, but that’s less important than the fact that Emily doesn’t question it. Of course, you can see her thinking, the government’s cost of doing anything will always stay the same, or increase. I’m okay with this.
We have to make a transition into something that is use-based… With greater fuel efficiency, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric cars, hyper-efficient diesel, people who are putting the same amount of wear and tear on roads and occupying space and creating congestion have wildly different payments that they make through the fuel tax.
In other words: We — and this time it is the “we” of the government — set up a variety of incentives to discourage low-efficiency freeway usage, from CAFE from blocking the Keystone XL, and people responded the way we hoped they would, and now we need to punish them for that. You, the consumer, invested in expensive technologies from the Prius Plug-In to the Tesla Model S to reduce our energy dependence, believing that you would be rewarded for doing so in lower fuel costs, and now that has to be taken away from you, because highway costs mysteriously stay the same when highway usage drops.
Having set up the pitch with minimal effort, Ms. Badger lets Rep. Bluemenauer start gloating about his proposed and preferred replacement: use tax.
We started in Oregon with a monitoring process. People are interested, it’s technically possible, and it changes driving behavior. When people were aware that they were being charged per mile – and they were aware of the miles that they drove – they drove less.
But one of the elements that came out of the first pilot study was that people were a little uncomfortable with monitoring where they went. It’s ironic that people are self-conscious about that, because with a smartphone, The Man knows where they are. These are people who are tweeting and posting pictures. And we are transforming automobiles into computers on wheels that are keeping track of this stuff anyway.
It’s ironic that women who wear short dresses are self-conscious about being long-lens observed by masturbating perverts. Because those women are tweeting and posting pictures, and they’re standing beneath the Global Hawks anyway. Remember that: if your neighbor has the nerve to Tweet his location once in a while, he’s asking for it. “It” in this case being government surveillance. And you are too, because you’re part of the “people” who like to Tweet.
(Clip NSFW for language)
Let’s hear more about what they did to calm the fears of “you people”:
we gave people a choice, because we really don’t care where they go. We care how far they go. So people could choose – they could do it with an app for a smartphone, they could use an on-board navigation system. They could do it the old-fashioned way when they go for an annual inspection and just have an odometer reading. Or you could pay a big fat, flat fee.
Well, there you go. It’s not exactly decent — imagine a hotel offering discounts for people who would allow cameras in the room — but it allows people to pay extra for privacy after a fashion. Let’s hear more about what we’re going to do to keep going in that direction.
According to GM and Verizon, the technology is there to make this transition. It could be done in months. They’re ready to go. The public’s not yet ready to go.
What transition is this? The transition where you start monitoring everybody’s movements despite what you just said about Oregon’s program? Also, notice that he asked “GM” and “Verizon”. That’s what happens when you bail out one industry and free another from anything that looks like the post-AT&T shackles put there by wiser men: you get toady-corps.
So we need to have a fuel tax increase to be able to have a robust six-year reauthorization, and we need another year or two or three of experimenting, raising the comfort level, giving people choices.
So we’re going to penalize the people who paid to reduce their consumption, as well as everyone else, and then we’re going to start selling the idea of submitting to monitoring. But wait, there’s more, because this guy literally cannot stop himself from frothing at the mouth at the possibilities.
The other thing that is so powerful about the VMT technology
And look: it has a name.
is that we’ll
Not “we’d”, which means “we could”. “We’ll”, which means “we will”.
be able to help drivers do a lot more than just conveniently pay for their road use. The same technological platform will enable people to get real-time traffic information. The seamless payment that’s debited to an account to pay for road use could also be used to pay for a transit ticket, or an Amtrak ticket, or an application they can use to pay for parking.
It’d be an integrated system. It’s very likely that this would be an on-board navigation system. The car companies are salivating at the prospect of doing this. There are people who would pay to be a part of it.
And there are people who will pay to have a woman squat over them and piss into their mouth. I know there are people like this because I’ve met multiple women who pay their rent doing it. But if you try to piss into my mouth then, as one of my favorite writers would say, you better come at me strong because I will take you down.
And now, at long last, we arrive at the Wagnerian moment where this guy just lets his freak flag fly and metaphorically ejaculates all over the face of the kneeling American motorist:
If all we did was set this up to collect the road fee, that’s actually a more expensive way to collect the fee. The gas tax is actually a very inexpensive tax to collect. But if we are able to have a platform that does all these other things, to share the costs, and give people a richer transportation experience, I think people will voluntarily make that transition.
We’re missing all the air quotes, I think, let’s put them back in:
I “think” people will “voluntarily” make that “transition”
When you read “voluntarily” in modern wonk-speak, you can take that to mean “Any amount of resistance short of facing down the Bureau of Land Management with the local redneck militia,” and that’s what it means here as well. The motorists of America will be given a single option: GPS-based usage tracking tied to a central payment account that will also be debited for parking and traffic tickets. It’s perfectly easy to imagine a speed camera just sitting by the site of the road dinging every motorist who goes by at 1mph over the limit a nice, round five hundred bucks. And why not?
Naturally, the same government that manages to lose all the incriminating IRS emails will keep solid-gold-permanent records of your travels until the end of time. If they do it with the justly-reviled public-private partnership, those records will be sold to Equifax and your insurance company as well. With your travel and your Carnivore records, the government knows exactly who and what you are. In real time, they’ll be able to understand your entire life. Imagine the day when driving to an oncology clinic results in a sit-down with your company’s HR representative to discuss your future with the company. Or the day when your employer can simply buy a list of your whereabouts sorted to its particular interest. Or the day when parking your car outside a gun store every Sunday and walking across the street for ice cream results in the ATF visiting your house to discuss your gun-nut tendencies. Or the day when driving through known drug-sales areas results in a SWAT team tossing a flashbang into your child’s crib.
“Oh, Jack, you teatard anarchist commie libertarian,” you’re sighing. “How else are they supposed to address the Highway Fund problem?” Well, I would suggest that destroying the last vestiges of privacy and liberty in this country are not any less meaningful than keeping up the pace of road construction. I would also suggest that it’s not my job to come up with ideas as to how the government can easily accomplish its goals without trampling its citizens underfoot. But since you asked, I’ll come up with one: A ten percent tariff on cheap goods imported from China would add 50% to the existing Highway Fund tax level, enough to address all concerns for the foreseeable future.
The amateur and professional economists on TTAC will no doubt speak at length about how this would disturb the economy. Well, the economy’s disturbed already, ain’t you noticed. And the United States Government has the iron-clad Constitutional authority to levy a tariff. Lastly, if you value the nebulous business interests that are served by Chinese trade over the actual freedom of actual American citizens, you’ve swallowed a lot of Kool-Aid from your one-percenter superiors.
Alternately, the gas tax could simply be doubled. It would be frustrating, and offensive, and it would place a further hardship on people who are already under the heel of transport costs, but it would be honest. And if it causes the entire country to switch to gasoline-free transportation, freeing us from bondage to the Middle East and the indignities of commodities traders? Well, that’s a nice problem for a country, or a scorpion, to have, isn’t it?