Friday, February 20, 2009

Good news from the administration

My previous post about taxation based on mileage driven has been kaiboshed by President Obama.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Obama administration will not support a policy of taxing drivers based on their mileage, the Transportation Department said Friday after a published interview in which Secretary Ray LaHood called it an idea "we should look at."

In a written statement, the department said, "The policy of taxing motorists based on how many miles they have traveled is not and will not be Obama administration policy."

Okay, so just pretend I didn't say anything.

Taxing you by the mile is a terrible idea

But that's what they have in mind, folks. Since gasoline tax revenues are way down, the government has to find other methods to fund road projects.

WASHINGTON - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he wants to consider taxing motorists based on how many miles they drive rather than how much gasoline they burn — an idea that has angered drivers in some states where it has been proposed.

Gasoline taxes that for nearly half a century have paid for the federal share of highway and bridge construction can no longer be counted on to raise enough money to keep the nation's transportation system moving, LaHood said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled," the former Illinois Republican lawmaker said.

This whole sad saga is based on a dumb idea from the start. In my opinion, any time you build government spending around a so-called "established habit" of human beings, you better be prepared for the day when that habit changes. Americans finally got smart when the oil prices shot through the roof last year, and now they're driving less. And with new technologies like Nissan's 100-mile range all-electric car, we'll be buying even fewer gallons of gasoline. Which begs the question: What is their plan for 30 years from now when electric cars are more the norm than the exception?

But the part of that article that really gets my blood boiling is how they're going to monitor your mileage:

A tentative plan in Massachusetts to use GPS chips in vehicles to charge motorists by the mile has drawn complaints from drivers who say it's an Orwellian intrusion by government into the lives of citizens. Other motorists say it eliminates an incentive to drive more fuel-efficient cars since gas guzzlers will be taxed at the same rate as fuel sippers.

The first person who comes to my door with one of these GPS modules for my car will find themselves at odds with my Second Amendment rights.

So what's the solution to all this madness? I have two ideas.

First, user fees. We already pay $36 per year to license our cars in Pennsylvania. Why not tack a little more onto that? And if you have to make toll road or two, so be it. Just don't turn the entire nation into New Jersey.

Second, make mass transit riders pay their fair share. I work in Pittsburgh, which has free bus transit from point to point within the downtown area. Make those people pay a buck or two and put that into the coffers. Some of that might fix our Port Authority trouble as well. The fares have been too cheap for too long.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A true sign of the Apocalypse

Now I know we're in trouble: The penultimate purveyor of elevator music is about to go south.

(CNN) -- Muzak, the company that put pop, string-filled arrangements of rock songs in your elevator, filed bankruptcy papers Tuesday after it missed a $105 million payment to creditors.

The pipeline of easy listening will continue to flow as Muzak restructures its debt during the Chapter 11 process, the company said.

"Muzak is a solid business with an outstanding customer base, but we are burdened with substantial debt obligations established over a decade ago," Muzak CEO Stephen Villa said.

Muzak's cash flows doubled in the last three years, Villa said, "demonstrating that our business continues to perform well even in today's challenging environment."

Apparently America is dead

If you watched Obama's town hall meeting yesterday, you heard some amazing things, and I'm not talking at all about what Obama had to say.

I'm referring strictly to the questions asked by members of the audience, like Henrietta the homeless woman who lives in a car with her son, or Julio the 4-year McDonald's employee and college student who isn't happy with the benefits he gets from that job.

Neither of these two folks are truly representative of the whole of America and Americans, but the world will see them that way, and I'm sickened by it.

Let me get an important point out of the way first. There is nothing funny about homelessness. I'm sure it's heart-breaking for those people, and when I see them walking around or sleeping on sidewalks, I do truly feel very badly for those folks. Unfortunately it's not within my power at the moment to help them beyond the occasional dollar or two when they ask. Maybe some day it will be. Until that time comes, I will continue give regularly to the United Way through our company's fund drives. I also make out-of-pocket donations to several local charities when I'm able.

However, if you're homeless and you just languish in it without attempting to help yourself, what can I do for you? Most of the people I see panhandling here in Pittsburgh are able-bodied individuals. The guy who sits on the jersey barrier at the stoplight at Rt. 28 and Ninth Street looks like he could hoist bricks or unload trucks. He doesn't limp and he has all his limbs. Maybe Henrietta isn't in that boat but there are people out there who do things that don't require a strong back. Jobs like receptionist or secretary come to mind.

As for Julio, I have some sympathy as well. I remember working at McDonald's as a high school kid and just after dropping out of college. In both cases it seemed to me that the dream of owning my own car and having a place of my own to hang my hat were just beyond reach, and maddeningly so. But I told myself over and over that my time at that job was only temporary. I knew in my heart that $3.15/hour (minimum wage plus, in 1989) was good but not great, adequate for now but certainly not a career move. There was more coming down the road to me because I knew I was a smart kid with something to offer the world.

And I was right about that. Flunking out of college was a swift kick to the head: my father kicked me out of the house and I wound up living with a friend and her two kids, and between the four of us, we could barely afford the rent. And if you saw some of the places we lived, you'd think maybe Henrietta had it right (one place had no ceiling in the living room and there was a foot of water in the basement).

When Dad told me to pack my stuff and leave, I was angry at him for it. I was a petulant child with about as much maturity as I now see in my own 3-year-old. But Dad was exactly right, and looking back now I can see that it was absolutely the best thing he could have done for me. If he'd let me stay, he would have been an "enabler", and maybe I'd still be living in his basement at age 37. So Dad, when you said "someday you'll thank me for this", you were exactly right.

After enduring a few years of that, I turned it around. I worked a few more crappy jobs in places that were closer and closer to my chosen career path and eventually landed a job building computers and writing software for a very small company at a measly $20,000 per year. I still had a broken-down Ford Tempo and I shared an apartment with another young guy at work. My situation wasn't kingly, but it was certainly improving: in six years I had more than tripled my yearly salary. And I did it entirely on my own.

The next fourteen years saw stellar improvement and I can tell you that I'm pretty happy with my career to this point. I'm a home owner with a small family and two cars that are paid off.

What's the point of those last few self-congratulatory paragraphs? It's this:

If I can do it, why can't Julio or Henrietta?

The folks who endured the Great Depression and World War II did pretty much the same thing I did with much less than I ever had. I don't feel worthy to cast myself into their group by saying we shared a plight but I can tell you that the America I used to live in was full of people like this. People who understood that they were assets to the world and that the only guaranteed way to achieve anything is to go and get it yourself.

You can trace that quality all the way back to the pioneers and the folks who carved homesteads out of the wilderness here a few hundred years ago. And unfortunately, from what I'm seeing, you can find the end of that thread here in the early days of the 21st century.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Finding the silver lining in the recession

First gas prices return to near-normal levels, and now this: illegal immigrants are fleeing the U.S. in droves.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Pedro Pablo slowly folds up his American flag blanket and stuffs it in his duffel bag. With it goes his American dream.

"I left my family and lost four years with them. I will ask them to forgive me," he said.

Pablo is an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who came to the United States to support his wife and five sons back home. When he arrived, construction jobs were plentiful. Over the last year, he says, he's worked three days.

He recently boarded a bus with a one-way ticket home, paid for by the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles. "I thought I could get ahead here. I regret coming."

So maybe destroying the economy was all we needed to do. It's like chemotherapy - give the patient poisons and chemicals until the cancer dies off.

All I'm waiting for now is the outcry from pro-illegal alien groups. It's coming.