Special Report

Bobos in Priuses

Democracy takes the off ramp.

By 3.6.06

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It is indeed a sad day when peasants in Russia have so much to teach us peasants in California about social activism. But look what's happened in Moscow, where average folk got fed up with priority access to the road system: in a textbook nonviolent protest, the trigger point came when commoner Oleg Scherbinksy was sentenced to four years in prison for causing an accident by not getting out of the way fast enough when a government official, commandeering the road, sped by. In response, a thousand citizens in 500 cars took a Sunday drive, moving slowly through the streets favored by the big shots. Silently, they demonstrated -- as authorities looked on to squelch any unauthorized "rally" -- that the elites have no special claim on the roadways.

Here too in Southern California, the elites have been hampered by slow moving traffic -- but a pesky two centuries of egalitarianism has prevented them from doing anything about it. Those Muscovite flashing blue roof lights and special license plates signifying "out of the way -- serf!" just won't cut it in a culture where tomorrow the guy cleaning your pool just might be cast as the next James Bond. Over here, a more sensitive, greener, and ideal-laden power grab was in order.

Call me Charlie Brown. Like that pathetic cartoon optimist repeatedly eying a teed-up football, I tend to believe that Western Civilization is always only one beau jeste away from repair. Poor Charlie: he alone is convinced that this time Lucy will actually let him kick the ball. And so, just a few months ago, when traffic had gone from bad to terminal, I knew for sure that we had reached the tipping point: this time, common citizens would restore a sense of freedom, commerce, and caprice to the Golden State. Like every other chump in recorded history, I followed my heart and bet against the house.

Every California social revolution needs a crisis, and now, with perpetual traffic gridlock, we had ours. The Prop 13 tax revolution was the result of a tax-the-middle-class flashpoint. The Davis recall and Arnold election were a response to a scary state fiscal meltdown. (Arguably, Gov. Schwarzenegger's failure last November to pass his ballot propositions was the residue of the fact that he is doing too good a job, and hence the public was no longer fearful and radicalized.)

As an un-appointed evangelist of rational allocation, I started treating any social encounter as an opportunity to expand minds. "We do not have a freeway shortage any more than we have a prime rib shortage," I would softly suggest. "Isn't the problem really that we are giving away something at a price [free] that attracts too many willing buyers?"

It worked. Traffic nightmares had driven even congenital tax-and-spend statists to wits end -- there's just so much NPR you can enjoy each day. Desperate and testy, they warily heard me out as I discussed the magic of the price mechanism.

Sure, I was mean -- but only when I had to be. Isn't the first rule of persuasion to eviscerate your target's existing assumptions? It was fun, too, asking questions like "how is society served when three undocumented gardeners with no license and no insurance are able to blow past a neurosurgeon late to rescue an aneurism victim?" Inevitably, someone would bring up the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry David hires a prostitute sit in his Prius in order to get to Dodger Stadium in the car pool lane. They were getting it.

By my calculations, we were just months -- weeks, maybe -- away from turning the choked San Diego Freeway into the wide-open Ayn Rand Tollway. Thanks to other gas, parking and access situations, the California public was now familiar with transponder technology. They would be quite capable of wrapping themselves around the idea of time-based variable entrance fees to the freeway system metered by a device on their sun visor.

Even casual readers of the funny pages know what comes next: Lucy snatched the football. The state government -- in cahoots with the Feds -- came up with an exquisite way of rescuing the NPR Nomenklatura from pesky stop and go driving while keeping the rest of us crawling along like beetles. All you had to do was think like they did -- and be rich.

Their idea was both delicious and healthful-seeming -- sort of like when you trade in your Mr. Goodbars for carob-covered raisins. Henceforth, the State declared, solo drivers in preferred vehicles would be allowed access to the speedy, uncluttered carpool lane. And by preferred vehicles, did we mean neurosurgeons rushing to the hospital? Perhaps single moms dashing between childcare responsibilities and work? Or maybe the perennial government favorite, the actuarially challenged with diminished faculties who need the extra navigational room and have less absolute time to waste?

No. The government determined that the most entitled users of scarce freeway lane space were those driving a specific few "environmentally friendly" hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape. Like the dwarf movie producers who suddenly morph into alpha males when Lifetime Network picks up their next 13 episodes, these ugly, underpowered, rolling scotch tape dispensers instantly became the new desirable car. Suddenly, people would stop at nothing -- nothing -- to possess them.

Make no mistake -- California's designated Prius Lane is indeed a market solution. But even if you named Karl Marx as commissioner of the Franchise Tax Board, he could not have concocted a more punitive, confiscatory formula. The automotive authority Edmunds.com recently calculated that, for a Prius to make economic sense, gasoline would have to cost $10/gallon. So, for the privilege, every time he fills up, the Prius owner is paying in effect a more than seven dollar per gallon tax premium. In addition, the consumer must absorb that hard to quantify but tangible "cost" associated with leaving the comfort of one's previous fossil fuel Lexus.

Despite the hype and misinformation, consumers have, as usual, reacted rationally. Sure, there are those rich or stupid enough who choose to accessorize their life with this kind of mobile demonstration of awareness and humility. But the Prius market growth has come among the cash rich but time-starved elite, making a devil's bargain that they find about as bitter as devil's food cake. For someone shaving twenty minutes of each commute in the Prius lane, the price premium is easy to monetize and even easier to justify.

Though the idea is already spreading, please avoid the temptation to write off the Prius Perk as simply one more California affectation. The program exists to do far more than simply spiff those among the fortunate affluent minority who think correctly; this kind of obscene, un-democratic scam is actually essential to the continuity of big government.

Statism cannot exist without targeted, adjunct programs that opiate the elite from feeling the generalized pain of government meddling. Perks for the noisy, pushy, and sometimes influential elite are an essential component of preserving enveloping control of everyone else. The cycle goes like this: first government programs meddle with the market, creating either scarcity, poor quality, or high prices. At some threshold, the public is "outraged" with (you pick it) the high cost of health care, schools that don't teach, vagrancy, retirement savings, or traffic. That's where the opiating kicks in. Without threatening the ongoing government program, the powers-that-be gingerly carve out a special situation for the elites.

Thus, the lifestyle of the haves is enriched at the expense of the have-nots through resource-transfer programs with virtuous names: "livable environment" (curtailed homebuilding), "affordable housing" (the highly-regressive mortgage interest deduction), "quality public schools" (publicly financed charter schools for the elite), "quality broadcasting" (burger flippers' tax dollars used to produce Masterpiece Theater), "affordable healthcare" (where the haves "pay" for their healthcare with after-tax dollars, and the middle class does not).

Last Sunday, before the Oscar Ceremonies, Hollywood celebrated the fourth year of "Red Carpet, Green Cars" where Toyota Motors provided hybrids to a gaggle of arriving VIPs, including Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Aniston, and George Clooney. This pomposity is an extension of behavior that Michel Medved has written about regarding other pathologies: celebrities promoting lifestyles onto the rest of us where they alone through wealth and fame are insulated from any derivative negative outcome.

Nonetheless, the peasants ogled the cars, cheered the actors and blew kisses. Shortly thereafter, these same common citizens returned to their beat-up Oldsmobiles and Camrys, ascended the onramp, and prayed.

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About the Author
Judd Magilnick lives in exile in Santa Monica, California.