I am going to make what at first glance might seem like a ridiculous argument: our nation is becoming more and more like a freeway where the HOV/car pool lane has been replaced by a toll or “FasTrak” lane. I got this idea while sitting on the 405 freeway in a traffic jam, watching the FasTrak traffic flow by me.
A HOV or car pool lane is a designated lane for vehicles holding two or more individuals. There is no charge to use this lane. Since traffic flows more rapidly in these lanes, it was hoped they would nudge drivers to share rides during high traffic times. And, when that happened, all of us would benefit. The car poolers would get where they were going faster. Other drivers would benefit because the movement of vehicles into the HOV lane would lessen traffic jams. Finally, and very importantly, the wider community (call it the “commonwealth”) would benefit because fewer cars and better traffic flow would amount to less fuel consumption (and maybe fewer oil rigs and pipelines), fewer accidents, less air pollution, and perhaps even slower global warming.
On the other hand, a toll or FasTrak lane is a lane set aside for drivers willing to pay a fee to be able to speed past traffic jams. These lanes are open to cars with only one occupant. The only requirement is that the driver must pay a fee to use the lane. The only beneficiary here is the driver who pays the fee.
Those of us in the regular lanes of our society cannot afford the privileges of the FasTrak and, as a result, we have little chance of moving ahead. Those with enough income or wealth to pay the fee, however, can speed up and pass our fellows, wondering why they are always beeping their horns and complaining instead of just trying harder to get ahead.
Here are just a few examples of what I mean. Noise Pollution: Transportation authorities regularly design airport flight patterns and freeway routes to avoid discomforting affluent neighborhoods. Environmental hazards: Dumps, waste sites, and dangerously polluting factories are usually located far away from where the well-off live and are even sited so that the prevailing winds do not carry smells and chemicals into affluent neighborhoods. Housing: Well-to-do neighborhoods regularly convince government not to allow any low or moderate income (“high density”) housing near them. Schools: From charter schools and private prep schools to expensive tutoring and test prep courses, the educational toll lane in our country is easy to observe. Health care: America provides “best in the world” health care for those who can pay its very high prices but the rest of us live fewer years with worse health and poorer care than our fellows in other industrialized (and some less developed) nations. Security: Life in our communities can be safe and secure if you can afford to live in an upscale gated community. These places not only receive the attention of public police and fire forces but they usually also enjoy the services of private security guards. In fact, it is increasingly common for upper income individuals to buy private fire fighting services. Old Age: The country enables true “golden years” for retirees who have made enough money to be able to buy private retirement “pensions,” such as IRAs and TSAs. Very much like toll lanes, these relatively new retirement savings plans allow those with money to bypass the struggles and jams that most older people experience. Taxes: the US system of taxation and tax deductions serves the rich but not the poor or middle classes. Deductions for education, home ownership, philanthropy and donations lower tax bills for those who already have money but do nothing for those without it. And, through the process of lowering taxes for the upper middle class and the upper class these tax breaks starve public institutions (schools, libraries, hospitals, housing, transit, etc, etc) and public services so that the rest of us suffer in the traffic jams of ordinary life in a society that does not value it’s commonwealth.
Let me be clear about one thing. I am not just pointing out that we are a very unequal society. By now, everyone knows that. I am suggestion that we are a society that is adopting FasTrak policies that do not contribute to our commonwealth. Our public policies used to be designed to nudge us in the direction of the common good. We all benefitted potentially from well-funded and thoughtfully designed policies that created interstate highways, police and fire protection, schools, secure jobs, good retirements, public arts, public libraries, public parks, and safe and clean environments. But, increasingly, our laws and policies are like toll lanes. They provide those with money a way to avoid the problems and jams that the rest contend with.
So, to be brief, toll lanes do not build our commonwealth or push us to participate in it. They benefit the few while blocking the way forward for the many. Wouldn’t it be better if we built a “car pool lane society? Shouldn’t we act to change our FasTrak policies into HOV policies that build our commonwealth and benefit everyone, affluent and lower income alike? Shouldn’t we have a tax code that treats the poor as well as it treats the rich, public education that is funded and used by all families, health care that is both excellent and accessible, neighborhoods that do not close the gates on those who have less or look different from ourselves, good pensions paid for by good wages and fair taxes, and so on.
To be a commonwealth is to be a political community that serves and develops the well being of all, the common good. Like an HOV lane on a busy freeway, the institutions, laws, and practices of a commonwealth move us toward behavior that is good for all of us.
It’s time to build more car pool lanes and closed down those FasTraks.
Thomas Meisenhelder is Professor Emeritus of Sociology from CSU, San Bernardino. He resides in Huntington Beach.
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