Monday, October 08, 2007

Politics Matter

Car And Driver magazine is a publication targeted at red-blooded, meat-eating, gasoline-fueled American men. It’s a magazine for those (like me) who believe that there are two kinds of people: Those whose cars have a manual transmission (a.k.a stick-shift), and those who are wimps. If you’ve ever wondered whether its better to spend your $100,000 on an Aston Martin V-8 Vantage, an Audi R8, or a Porsche 911 Turbo, Car And Driver has an answer for you. This is a magazine for people interested in nothing more than driving a very, very fast car.

And yet, in one of those demonstrations of how politics affects each and every American, whether they choose to be active in the political process or not, the lead editorials from this month’s issue of C&D are both related to political issues. The lead editorial, by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Csaba Csere, bemoans Virginia’s extremely unpopular “civil restitution fees.”

This plan, hatched by a Republican lawyer in the Republican-led House of Delegates, tacks on hefty fees to normal tickets in an attempt to turn the criminal justice system into a revenue generator for Virginia. In an example cited in the editorial, driving 20 or more MPH over the speed limit is now defined as wreckless driving. So not only will that 75 in a 55 get you the normal $200 ticket, but it also now gets you a $900 “civil restitution fee” on top of it. In one of the more controversial aspects of the plan, these “civil restitution fees” only apply to Virginia residents. Apparently, the lawyer who hatched this plan feared that the cost of tracking down out-of-state residents would eat into the profits to be earned from the fines.

Like other bald-face cash grabs, such as red-light cameras, this plan was supposed to provide revenue in lieu of increasing gas taxes. Because even in the face of runaway inflation of the cost of highway construction materials such as steel and concrete, Republicans have been reluctant to increase the nominal gas tax rate, even if the real (inflation-adjusted) gas tax rate would not change.

Someday, Republicans will learn that the people don’t like it when they attempt to turn the criminal-justice system into a revenue generator. Especially the readers of C&D, who view speeding tickets as “just a tax on getting there.” In Virginia, they might even learn this year, where this plan has the Republicans in danger of losing control of the House of Delegates.

Flipping to another editorial, this time by editor Patrick Bedard, you will read about how a “bankrupt” government is “selling our highways out from under us.” He is referring, of course, to Indiana’s leasing of the Indiana East-West Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium for 75 years in exchange for $3.8 billion, and the flurry of proposed similar deals that have followed. Captain 36 percent, Ken Blackwell, proposed a similar deal for the Ohio Turnpike as part of his gubernatorial campaign last year.

My own opinion of this practice is that it is undemocratic for these governments to engage in long-term leases of public assets, because they are making policy decisions that cannot be undone for generations to come. And if the political leaders who receive this lump sum of cash spend it poorly (not an unlikely scenario, I'm afraid) then it's future users of the Toll Road 50, 60, 75 years down the line who will pay the price, because they will be paying a double tax that they won't be benefiting from.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that every law, and indeed the Constitution itself, should expire once every 20 years, which he calculated to be a “generation.” This, he argued, was the only way to prevent one generation from imposing its will on the next, which, in his opinion, was not actually democracy at all. Thus you can see my point that long-term leases of public assets are incompatible with democracy itself.

What I find most interesting about these editorials is that they are both criticizing policies promoted primarily by Republicans. I find this funny because I can’t think of a bastion of red-blooded conservative Republicanism more pure than the NASCAR fans and car guys who would read such a magazine. But at the end of the day, it illustrates that politics touches every aspect of our lives. And that’s why participation in the political process by each and every American is so vital.

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