Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mileage tax??

I have had multiple mood swings on this subject, and finally wrote the following on the r-squared energy blog. As usual, my opinions are somewhat contradictory to themselves. I have socialist leanings when I believe the goal is beneficial to society at large, or that a market based solution would be too costly in dollars and/or in reduction of the desired effect. Social Security and unemployment insurance, for example. These programs are most effective being government mandated and run- if they have effective oversight and maintain their goals of being safety nets and not entitlements. But for other things, like this, I believe in a much more market based approach- government has to collect taxes because it has these roads to maintain. But the benefit to society and the benefit to the individual users isn't always equal- there's no reason a hermit in a shack in Montana, or a car-less city dweller ought to share equal burden for road maintenance. Charge the users what it costs to maintain. Users will decide if the costs are worth it- they can alter their transportation choices to fit their needs and budget.

(I suppose a true market based solution would have the government sell off the roads to private investors and let them deal with it. I'm not sure that's workable.)

(I also forgot to account for existing toll roads- I would imagine it wouldn't be difficult to have a system that subtracts out miles driven on private roads. The tollway entity could send out coupons once a year as well as share the data with the federal computer system. Drivers could proudly present their coupon (or hell, sell them) and the federal system would make sure the data is valid.)

Comment begins.... NOW:

At first glance, I too thought this was a ridiculous idea. After seeing the comments on how this might be a more long term solution seeing that gasoline will go away some time in the next 1000 years, it started to make a little more sense.

However, the costs seem to outweigh the benefits. This is not the kind of infrastructure we need to be building. Everyone seems to have looked at the London gate-tax as some kind of perfect example of how technology can solve a problem, where it really shouldn't be. It's a unique situation where technology just happened to be the easiest solution. Same thing as the EZ Pass system- technology is the right solution. But that doesn't mean that technology should be used to solve everything.

If you look at the various problems that need to be addressed: lack of funding for the road system, encouragement of fuel efficiency, and the erosion of funding that would occur as gasoline usage gets reduced, I think a multi-pronged approach becomes necessary.

At the moment, adding more kinds of taxes doesn't seem like a good idea. But when IS it a good idea? I would propose that a mileage based tax does need to be put into effect. But that a gasoline tax needs to remain.

How this should be implemented is thus:

Mileage taxes based on odometer readings. It's already illegal to screw with odometer readings, odometer readings are already something people are accustomed to paying attention to when they buy and sell cars. Further, in most of the populous areas, people already have to take their cars in for safety/smog checks where the odometer reading is taken down. And further again, people have to pay for license plates every year. Why not combine the processes? Every year, you have to go to a facility. They run the various tests, they give you the approval and a bill for the year's plate sticker. That bill comprises:

1- the cost of the plate sticker and
2- some kind of facility charge. this is up to the states to determine. There are a variety of ways to incentivize these costs- free of charge if you show up and your car meets the standards. A higher charge if you dont' and have to come back. A higher charge if you want to make an appointment and avoid the lines.
2- the federal mileage tax, which would be shown as each drivers' share of the costs of the roads.

Then, at the gas pump, install stickers that detail the various taxes on the cost of the gasoline. Possibly with a chart that shows the per mile costs at a couple of different MPG levels.

This would, I think, have the following effects:

1- conservation at all levels- the fewer miles you drive, the less resources you use up and the less it costs you.

1b- a removal of the tragedy of the commons problem with the roads. When a resource seems free, people tend to overuse it.

2- openness- drivers will have real data that shows how their behavior/needs cost society and thus themselves money. If I believe I need to drive a lot of miles or need a large, low MPG vehicle, I can see what that costs me. Perhaps I can see that all the driving I do really IS worth the extra $200 it costs me a year. Or I can see that it isn't.

3- efficiencies in government services/requirements. Why should we waste everyone's time and tax dollars having multiple places one needs to go every year, when we can have one place that does everything in less time?

4- this would also, I'd imagine, have a stimulating effect on the automobile makers. when people see that the '83 Lincoln they are driving around costs them extra money, they might decide to buy a more efficient car. Further, if this has the effect of the states mandating safety checks where they didn't have them before, it would increase the overall safety level of the vehicles on the roads, and encourage people to maintain their damned cars...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I thought that's what the yellow light was for?

I guess I'm starting to get old. It really is starting to fry my chops when I see the utter silliness that the various governments and especially legislatures engage in.

Most recently, it was Cook County. They started installing those "county highway 1234" signs on their roadways. Makes sense- if there's a problem with a road, you'll know who to call. Then people started crying that it was "confusing". How is that? Every other county does it. The roads didn't change locations, Pulaski is still Pulaski. There's just a small sign on a few lightpoles that say that it's a county road instead of a city or state road. The same sort of signs have been there for years! Do I suddenly forget where I'm going because there's an Illinois 64 sign on North avenue? OMG, I *was* on 95th street, and I don't think I made any turns, but now the sign says I'm on 12 AND 20? Am I going in two directions at once??! So the county quit putting them up. Now wait a minute. If it was in the public interest to start putting them up in the first place, how does that change because some people don't like it? Your job is to do what needs to be done, even if some people don't like it. How are we going to make any progress if you can't have the fortitude to explain why a decision is right or wrong, in spite of the complaining?

Now this lunacy. Good job reinventing the wheel, idiots! We already have a perfectly good solution to this problem. It's been around for a few years now, most people have probably even seen it in action. The yellow light. It goes on to alert drivers that the signal is about to turn red, and that they shouldn't enter the intersection. If people are complaining that they are getting nabbed by the red light cameras, one of two things is going on:

1- They are just griping- they tried to run a yellow and got caught.
2- The yellow lights aren't timed properly.

I looked it up once, when I got nabbed by a red light camera myself. Too lazy to look it up now, but the DOT standards are basically this: you take the speed limit, the length of the intersection, the time it takes to react, the time it takes for a vehicle to stop at the speed limit, and you mix that all together so that the light is on long enough for the following to be possible. If a car is approaching an intersection and the driver sees the yellow light go on, the driver has enough time to make the decision whether he has enough time/room to stop or not. If he does, he applies the brakes and stops before the red light comes on. If he doesn't, he continues through the intersection safe in the knowledge that the red light will not come on until he has safely cleared the intersection.

Now, I remember when I got the red light ticket. I was driving, possibly exceeding the speed limit slightly, and I saw the yellow light. I remember deciding that I was in a hurry and that it was "close enough". I'm generally a good driver, and as a rule, don't blow red lights, but I do remember that I was cutting it close. Later, when I was watching the video of my infraction, there was probably a good second from when the light went from yellow to red until my car actually entered the intersection.

Now, I'm not complaining. The yellow light probably was within specifications, and I probably made a bad decision. But if there is a public safety issue where drivers feel like they don't have enough notice to stop safely, the prudent solution is to use the system that's already in place, and add a second or two to the yellow light. It would hurt no one, would tend to increase safety, would give those who blow red lights no excuse for their actions, and wouldn't be a ridiculous boondoggle installing a bunch of new equipment at every damned stoplight in the city.

It seems like a win-win situation. Shouldn't the role of government be to make fair laws, give the citizens all reasonable opportunity to be able to follow those laws, and then to enforce those laws ruthlessly? If we find ourselves in a situation where we are needing to make exceptions for certain infractions, or changing reality to reflect the laws, the law needs to be changed. The laws need to be written in such a way that no exceptions are necessary. The exceptions are *in* the law. If the situation at hand contains an exception, then the person is not guilty. It's not good justice to have situations where laws are fuzzy and enforcement is fuzzy, and one's guilt or innocence depends on chance. Bring on the automated traffic enforcement! But temper it with sane, sober laws that aren't up to interpretation or that aren't tailored to "catch" people at the margins, but instead tailored toward encouraging legal and safe behavior. Adding a couple of seconds to yellow lights does just this- it adds a little slack to the marginal cases, and makes darn sure that when someone is caught, they are for sure guilty of making a bad decision and have no excuse for their behavior.

Not only is this more just, it would tend to create more respect for the law. People, at least somewhat reasonable ones, will tend to see that the laws are a bright line of behavior that's clearly unacceptable, instead of how so many see it now, as a sort of fuzzy line that one crosses only within their tolerance for chance.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Change I can believe in

Just changed out the oxygen sensor in my car in under an hour. I'm hoping that fixes my slightly reduced gas mileage and a not entirely smooth idle.

But more importantly. Everyone is abuzz about the stimulus plan. My opinions:

1- Eleventy trillion seems like a big number, but it really isn't that big. Many of the things in this package, like the so called shovel-ready projects, are things that most likely were going to be funded at some point in the future. I'd have to actually read the thing to find out what the numbers are, and I probably won't. So much of the stimulus isn't new spending, but spending that has simply been renamed. Instead of being on the Omnibus Spending Act of 2009, it's on the Omnibus Pork Act of 2009.

2- A little disappointed in the new regieme on this one. I get that it is important to get a stimulus passed quickly for a variety of concerns, but I'd have liked to see a little better leadership ("corralling") of Congress. Hopefully the bill has enough wiggle room in it so that when the actual spending gets done, it's a bit more thoughtful.

3- I've heard a lot of tax-cut talk, some more interesting than others. I like plans that are a little more targeted than just sending out more checks to everyone. I've heard of things like cutting employment taxes, temporarily subsidizing SSI and medicare payments, changing the various limits around. I think ideas like that would be better at stemming job loss. A dollar spend is a dollar spent, but to actually work, the spending needs to be targeted at the margins. Giving the unemployed $600 gets them through another month or two, but what then? Giving the comfortably employed $600 might get them to buy that new TV, but I'm not so sure that can trickle down in time to save job cuts.

Pipe dreams:

Change the unemployment insurance concept all around. Split it up like the SSI tax is done, where the employer pays half and the employee pays half. Except that it's not really precise halves. Figure out the "base" cost of unemployment insurance. What it costs to give an employee $x for y weeks. That premium is split equally. Now, when a company lays off tons of people and their unemployment insurance rate goes up, that extra premium goes on their books. Investors and management can see the cost separately and make better decisions.

Further, employees would have the option of paying for extra insurance. Either a greater percentage of their income, or longer time allowed, or both. Helps workers who care feel better about an uncertain future, and increases the pool of money to pay for unemployment. And also is more transparent. Of course, this is antithetical to the smaller government, let private enterprise work it out way of thinking. For many things, I agree fully with this idea. But I think this is one of those cases where the incentives of the individual actors doesn't mesh with the needs of society. When bubbles like the credit bubble and the housing bubble can have greater effects than just rewarding and punishing the individual investors, I think it is government's place to actually govern.