The great car giveaway

This month’s _Washington Monthly_ comes with a stunningly bad feature by Margy Waller, suggesting a huge new federal entitlement to help America buy more of what it hardly needs: cars. Hence, a letter to the editor:

The illustrations accompanying October’s “Auto-Mobility” by Margy Waller say it all: long lines of cars stretching out to the horizon, all stuck in traffic. This points to the most obvious problem with Waller’s foolish thesis: her new fleet of cars, like those of Houstonians fleeing Hurricane Rita, will end up stranded in traffic jams. 3.5% more cars might not sound like much, but her proposal would put too many of those cars right where and when they’re least wanted: in major cities at rush hour. Our cities simply cannot fit any more cars, and the postwar solution — to abandon or bulldoze cities in favor of plentiful parking in the suburbs — has cost our nation dearly.

Even more perversely, the Great Car Giveaway would further increase the already staggering social costs that drivers impose on American society, both drivers and non-drivers alike: most obviously, air and water pollution, death and injury from crashes, and the military and monetary costs of securing oil from overseas. These costs are highest in and around cities, where, again, Waller’s proposal would have its greatest impact. These costs also disproportionately fall onto the poor, who tend to drive old clunkers with poor mileage, absent or failing safety systems, and high maintenance costs.

Perhaps most twistedly, her proposal further penalizes those who quaintly use truly economical (and sustainable) ways to get to work, like walking or cycling, or who telecommute. These millions of workers currently do not benefit from existing commuting tax subsidies, even though we place zero burden on our groaning road network or on our polluted skies.

Moreover, the duplicitous proposal has little merit on its face. America already has more cars than licensed drivers. Subsidizing transportation for only the 4% of Americans who are truly transit dependent (many living in cities) would cost much less. Meanwhile, Waller conveniently forgets that the federal government already subsidizes free workplace parking (by deducting employee parking as a pre-tax benefit) to the tune to $85 billion annually, writing off one of the largest costs of car ownership.

Rather than buying cars (or clothes, or toothpaste) for the working poor, our nation might consider giving them the cash to do it themselves. A $100 billion Earned Income Tax Credit expansion, or a FICA payroll tax rebate, would work wonders for low-income Americans. Funding that through higher taxes on pollution, or by rescinding the parking credit — in other words, a green tax shift — would also work wonders for our planet.

Edit: Alan Berube, William G. Gale, and Tracy Kornblatt of Brookings say that the “most advantageous tax policies”:http://www.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/200506_taxpolicies.htm to help the urban working poor would fall along my lines: tax credits for child care, saving, health insurance, and homeownership. The last is particularly crucial: shifting from a deduction, which favors the upper class and benefits those with million-dollar second homes, to a capped credit which non-itemizers like me can take advantage of.

Edit 2: Spotted something somewhere online that had Waller clarifying that the credit would go to anyone who reported commuting expenses, even if they were less than the credit. Still, doesn’t that exclude telecommuters or those running home based businesses? The EITC does a pretty damn good job of helping the working poor already; no need to add yet more lines to the tax code.

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One thought on “The great car giveaway

  1. WaMo printed two letters in response, from Lee Epstein and Rep. Earl Blumenauer. Waller wrote an inflamed response to Blumenauer, accusing him of consigning poor workers to inadequate public transit in order to make sure the wealthy are not delayed… sacrificing the working poor on the altar of a ‘PC’ policy agenda… holding hostage the income prospects of low-income workers and the children that [sic] depend on them until the rest of us ‘understand’ the need to pass enough bond debt to pay for improved transit. [verb tenses changed] Is [he] serious when he suggests that there are other national funding priorities that are more important than the economic and homeland security of working Americans? Well, yes, golly, because maybe something besides more cars might just address that need!

    Neither of the letters pointed out that a $100B quadrupling of the real, proven, time-tested, works-like-a-charm EITC would be far more effective at meeting the needs of working Americans than the still-silly Car Giveaway. When it comes down to it, I trust working poor folks, not Washington lifers with obvious chips on their shoulders, to decide what working poor folks need more money for.

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