Automation takes its toll

Lots of important stuff in this post, and in the excellent comment thread. - promoted by david

Automated toll gantry

I realized this holiday, while doing my annual shuttle duty for children arriving and departing Logan airport, that an era truly has ended. The toll plaza at the Callahan tunnel, along with all the others, is dark. A construction crew is working their way from left to right, demolishing the empty structure.

We have a great deal of conversation here, much of it acrimonious, about the loss of low-skill hourly jobs that pay well. We have read passionate and heart-felt expositions about the suffering of workers, about how the Democrats “abandoned” workers, about how the GOP “betrays” workers, and about the endless promises of both parties to “bring back” these “good jobs”. We are being told that we Democrats lost because we didn’t make such promises loudly enough and frequently enough.

So I want to use the automation of the MA Pike tolls as an example, and ask how serious we really are about all this. I note that this changes means that about 400 workers will lose their jobs. These have been well-paid jobs that do not require a college education. For decades, these jobs were political plums handed out as part of patronage deals routinely conducted by both parties.

The economics are unavoidable. Conservative organs like the Pioneer Institute tell us how much these jobs cost. As is always the case, the economics of automation are compelling.

So why are we not marching in the street to demand that these jobs be saved? Why do we Democrats join our conservative brothers in the GOP in removing the livelihood of these 400 toll collectors? Where is our much-vaunted solidarity with fellow working men and women?

This is part of my fundamental argument with our post-truth society, and especially with my fellow Democrats who argue that we “betrayed” labor — working-class white men especially, and even more than that, working-class white men without college degrees.

Did any of us demand that the toll booths stay in place to protect these jobs? NO. Hell no.

It seems to me that we are allowing ourselves to drift ever deeper into the quicksand of intellectual sloth, pointing fingers elsewhere as every effort we make to escape sinks us deeper.

We here in Massachusetts are not willing to pay for toll collectors. We are not willing to put up with the inconvenience of toll booths. We resent their pensions, their benefits, their health plans, their overtime. We jump at the chance to put them on the street, so that we drive through an overhead gantry without slowing and have the toll paid automagically from our checking account.

I suggest that this is a microcosm of our unwillingness to actually face the reality of the society we have made. We will not pay a nickle more for a shirt. We flock to retail outlets just across the border in NH chasing illusory “bargains” because NH has no sales tax (the bargains do not exist, the prices are marked up to be the same).

We crucify any politician who dares tell us the truth, and elevate outright frauds who lie to us with empty promises of being “great” again. We demand that political parties “listen” to us because we are suffering, while we impose suffering on working men and women just like us because we can’t be bothered to slow down and hand a human a buck. I make no claim to be any different. I’ve had an EZ-Pass transponder since the month they were first offered however many years ago. I am glad to see the toll booths close, and I welcome their automated replacement. I know that several hundred of my fellow residents of Massachusetts are going to be out of work.

I think I owe them something different from Donald Trump. I think I owe them something different from empty promises of good jobs that we all know will never materialize for them. I think I owe them a FAR greater share of my income and wealth than I pay right now. I think there are a handful of men and women who have far greater income and wealth than me, and I think that handful owes far more than me even after I pay more.

I think we’re in a class war. I think we’re in a class war that, like every war, requires arms and ammunition — arms and ammunition that costs cold cash. I think if we’re serious about fighting this war, and I consider myself serious, then I think we need cash to stay in the battle. I think we should get that cash wherever we can. I think that if we can get that cash from a ten thousand small donors giving $20 each, we do just that. I think that if we can get that cash from ten large donors giving $20,000 each, we do that too. I’m sick of being called a “wall street sellout” because I refuse to tell the same lies about jobs as Donald Trump, and because I want as large an arsenal as possible to win this class war.

I think that people who have inherited personal fortunes and who will bequeath personal fortunes to their offspring have absolutely NO business demanding that anybody punch a clock and spend a shift collecting quarters in order to make a pittance that may feed their children that day.

I think we’re living in a new era. I think the burning (and that may be literal!) question is what this era is and will be.


57 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. But how DO you reconcile...

    …the need for jobs with the patronage complaints, which as I recall you’ve been among the most vocal here? Is it pay them less, but still enough? We’re all for living wages here, but it is difficult to justify salaries above mid five-figures for a job requiring no education. As public goods I prefer no tolls at all for roads so that’s not going to help workers either. Have they been given transitional assistance or offered other state employment?

    • Yes

      They’ve been offered transitional assistance, 80-90 have apparently been invited to apply for other jobs, and many have been offered early retirement.

      But still, the point is that these jobs are gone. Whether awarded through patronage less corrupt means, the jobs were still available until now.

      I think the “we’re all for living wages here, but …” is the point of my point. A living wage in Massachusetts is, I think (according to Elizabeth Warren), about $25/hour — $50,000 per year. Many of these jobs paid that.

      See, I think even our most ardent “living wage” proponents support high hourly wages for unskilled work in the abstract but not in the concrete. Are we willing to pay $5 for a coffee at Dunkin Donuts so that the woman working the register can be paid $25/hour? I suspect most will not.

      If we are so unhappy about the jobs lost to automation in manufacturing, then why not the toll collectors?

      • Becasue the jobs themselves were a Sink of Vice?

        The Pike was a famously corrupt institution. Untransparent, unaccountable, and unmourned. A JM Curley cartoon of Jobs for the Boyos. And don’t forget – the salary was only the tip of the iceberg. Between pensions and undermarket benefits, the perks associated with the job could be valued – conservatively – at about $15,000 above the salary annually. GIC plans not available to the public with zero co-pays and deductibles, paid for 80 and 90 percent by the employer/taxpayer, with additional coverage for items routinely excluded on commercially available plans.

        You want to call attention to that, seeing as how the rest of state employees can still access similar benefits at similar taxpayer cost?

        • Absolutely!

          I absolutely do, and I appreciate your comment — it spells out one side of the argument very nicely.

          See how this works? No mention of corruption in private industry. No mention of the human cost of automation. Enumerate the failings, keep silent about the consequences, ignore the abuses of the private sector (abuses that dwarf those mentioned here).

          Porcupine has articulated the case against toll workers.

          Where are our proponents of our new “progressive populist” agenda?

          • Don't know what thge answer is, but pretty sure what it isn't

            Unskilled labor got paid more in decades past because, when united, unskilled labor could command its economic value. But technology has clearly diminished that value, and I don’t think that the effect can be legislated away. Education is a solution for an individual, but not for the economy– once everyone goes to college, then there is just educcation inflation.

            I think skilled trades took pressure off for a long time, but the crash hit the construction industry hardest post-2008. If there is a thing that Dems forgot, that might be the thing. That said, I’m not sure how you get that booming construction industry without a bubble that threatens to destroy all, so maybe there was no solution in 2016.

        • I’d love to know the basis for your statement about GIC plans with no co-pays and deductibles since mine increase significantly every year. And though this is a drum that has been beaten many times, instead of hammering public employees for managing to negotiate decent benefits, why not ask why more of the private sector can’t manage to offer them, too? Please don’t forget that public employees are also taxpayers, just like you.

          • I was affiliated with a transportation agency

            And those plan were available there, and at MBTA. Municipal plans are significantly less generous, so police and fire and teachers absolutely pay more – but far less than the open market and they are shielded from the ACA increases.

            As far as private sector offerings, keep in mind that the insurance plans are offered based on the size of the pool. The GIC has perhaps the largest single pool of employees in the state; while there are many large private sector employers, I cannot think of one that on its own has more employees than all state agencies put together, and there used to be legal barriers for large private employers to ‘club together’ to offer plans.

            I am not hammering these employees, but I am critical of their lack of knowledge of what their plans WOULD cost in the private sector. Most assume that their benefits are typical and everybody has them.

            • Therein lies the rub.

              Yes, public employees may be getting a better deal than the private sector, but my argument has long been that rather than tearing down public unions, private employees should be fighting to get the same benefits in their jobs.

            • What's your point?

              I don’t understand your point.

              Are you arguing that the lower cost offered by the GIC is a bad thing? Your first paragraph of this comment sounds like you are.

              So are you arguing that the toll worker should have been paying more? Or do you suggest that we should not provide health insurance for them (so that we can pay a factor of ten more each time one of those now uninsured men or women goes to the ER without coverage)?

              Or are you saying, simply, that with automation we have no need for those jobs and we should just lay them off and forget about them?

              Or are you saying that should eliminate or reduce the health coverage of ALL state employees?

              You apparently objected to:

              GIC plans not available to the public with zero co-pays and deductibles, paid for 80 and 90 percent by the employer/taxpayer, with additional coverage for items routinely excluded on commercially available plans.

              One approach, I suppose, is to increase the cost, pain, and suffering of all state employees to match the cost, pain and suffering that our utterly failed health insurance and health care system already imposes on everybody else. That certainly seems to be the strategy of the national GOP and the incoming administration — the GOP has been trying to repeal the ACA since it became law.

              A different approach, of course, would be to improve the state of affairs for everybody else, so that every American (or Massachusetts resident) had “zero co-pays and deductibles with additional coverage for items routinely excluded on commercially available plans”.

              See, it sounds like you ARE hammering these employees. Or is your harsh language directed at their jobs, their employer, their benefits, their wages, and everything else about them while not really being about the actual men and women who did this job every day? Will you forgive me for having a hard time discerning the difference?

              Mind you, I’ve already said several times that I support eliminating these jobs now that automation is available. I think the question is what, if anything, we do about the HUMANITY — real suffering and hardship imposed on real men and women who by and large showed up every day and did the job they were paid to do.

  2. This (tolling) is not the place to start a discussion about automation

    All Electronic Tolling (AET) is in use all over the country. MA was very much behind the times in having people stick their handouts out for change.

    AET provides a huge amount of data that can be used in many many ways, for example implementing peak pricing.

    AET eliminates the handing of all that cash- inefficient and offers potential for crime.

    AET is the first step towards VMT (Variable Miles Tolling) which will have to come due to falling gas tax revenues due to greater fuel efficiency.

    AET reduces toll booth congestion, as well as toll booth accidents, which occur with regularity and often result in fatalities.

    Automation and the loss of low skilled jobs is the #1 issue in this country in my opinion. The discussion was not helped by all the claims that foreign competition and moving production offshore was the major problem.

    • Right points, right conclusion, wrong subject

      Toll booth demolition in Sturbridge

      I agree all your points, that’s why I’ve been a proponent of AET for years. I also strongly agree with your conclusion.

      In my view, though, that makes it a perfect place to start a discussion about automation — each of your five points is true for pretty much any scenario where automation is replacing human labor. For example, your last point directly translates to workplace safety — a discussion that to my knowledge has not been raised even once in our endless discussion about “jobs”.

      One of the lies, by omission, of Donald Trump’s false promises to coal country is the staggering human toll of mining. Coal mining is among the most dangerous professions in America. Federal regulations that protect mine workers are presumably among those regulations that Mr. Trump intends to dismantle.

      If automation did NOT have all these things going for it, then it would not be controversial — we would have banned it years ago. My point is that automation is inevitable, and so the loss of jobs like these is inevitable.

      Jobs that do not require post-high school education are disappearing — the images of empty toll booths being bulldozed are, to me, a perfect visual symbol of this change.

      In my view, AET is therefore an ideal starting place for this discussion.

      • Then you would be wrong.

        No other conclusion.

      • Here would be a better start

        I read a long article about this. If I can think of the source, I will link.

        There’s an auto parts (aftermarket) manufacturer in NY, Brooklyn, I think. They are the oldest company doing this in the US, since 1923 I think.

        Some of the production is US, some abroad. Some of it is still manual, some of it automated. They asked the owner how he makes decisions.

        1. Precision (like fuel injectors) stays in the US. Less precise (like mufflers) goes abroad. You need to keep on eye on things when high quality is required.

        2. If the cost of a new piece of equipment has less than a two year payback than the worker it replaces he buys it.

        So this encompasses, in a brief vignette, the issues.

        We should stick to the more complicated manufacturing when possible. This is what Germany manufacturers excel at. If it is easy to make and not costly to ship, it’s going to the lowest cost location, barring quotas or tariffs. US companies that manufacturer lower value add products are the most automated.

        As we increase the costs of paying an employee (like with health insurance and other regulations and taxes besides higher wages), employers are going to look at automation. It’s a natural progression.

        • Ah, thanks

          This actually IS helpful, and I appreciate it.

          I think both perspectives are valuable and I appreciate you coming back to post this.

        • Agreed, and ...

          This is a helpful approach for the impact of automation on the manufacturing sector.

          I think the new frontier for automation is the service sector, and that’s why I think it’s helpful to discuss both. A benefit of focusing on the manufacturing sector is that there is more data to draw from, hopefully leading to more concrete outcomes and policy recommendations.

          I think that some sort of contrast-and-compare between service-sector automation (such as toll workers) and manufacturing is important. I suggest that at least some of the issues are likely to be very different.

        • False path

          We should stick to the more complicated manufacturing when possible. This is what Germany manufacturers excel at. If it is easy to make and not costly to ship, it’s going to the lowest cost location, barring quotas or tariffs. US companies that manufacturer lower value add products are the most automated.

          This is indisputable in the short run, but in the long run it is not a solution because more complicated manufacturing requires higher and higher skilled workers. With each tick that the bar is raised, more people are left out of the economy.

          • But that IS our competitive advantage.

            If the bar for skill gets raised we must correspondingly lower the bar for entry into that economy through financially accessible education and job training.

            • Wide variety of skills and abilities

              I am not under the belief that every single person has the ability to be trained to do every single task. Do you think that you could be the quarterback for the Patriots if you had just trained for the job? No way.

              People have a wide variety of skills and abilities. Some are great at talking to others. Some are better off with heads-down work. Some have a knack with tools; others a knack with numbers; others a knack with computers.

              Why should we expect a successful economy when we cordon off certain skill sets from participating? Imagine if it was the other way around – your desk job has just been sent to India, so in order to participate in the economy you now must train to be someone who can effectively move 150lbs of machinery around all day long. You just happen to be 5’7, 140lbs. Good luck in the your economy.

    • VMT is a step backwards

      It’s for another thread, but in my view VMT is a step backwards. 18 wheeled trucks produce nearly all of the wear and tear on the road; taxing gallons encourages more efficient vehicles; we can tax electric easily enough with either (a) separate metered requirements, or (b) “phone home” provisions of miles driven of the vehicle, even split by state thanks to GPS; AET isn’t a step toward VMT because very few miles driven are on toll roads anyway.

      Personally, I think MassDOT should have preserved a cash lane but worked much harder at (a) making it EASY for folks to get a FastPass or EZPass (even a temporary one!), and (b) made the price differential between automated and cash tolls greater. Then, you do the gantry for most but keep a cash toll queue for those who want to pay by cash for any number of legitimate reasons. This way you get the vast majority of the AET advantages while preserving options for cash, for privacy, for unusual circumstances, and the like.

      To get at s’tom’s question: government should strive for efficiencies. Automated toll collection is clearly more cost effective. The question is; what do you do with those savings? Perhaps we should hire more roadway workers, more teachers, or more drug counselors with the savings.

      • Agree on all the above

        I note that teachers and drug counselors are each careers that require significant educational achievement — not just college, but at least a masters degree for each. I suspect that few of the now-unemployed toll collectors will qualify for either.

        I don’t want to unnecessarily belabor the point, and at the same time I want us to more deeply understand that striving for efficiency pretty much by construction means eliminating labor — especially unskilled hourly labor.

        • Unskilled?

          I doubt I have the skills to be a toll collector. Standing on my feet all day with no one to talk to, doing the same thing over and over again? Dealing with the occasional idiot who wants to pay in pennies of write a check? Quick call Dante and tell him to add another ring to the inferno.

          All jobs take skills. We just have to stop telling ourselves that some skills are not worthy a fair income.

          • You make vocabulary meaningless

            Call it what you want. Perhaps there’s a better word than “skill”. The fact remains that toll collectors were hourly workers that were paid well above minimum wage and did not have to have advanced education.

            Nobody said that toll collectors are not worthy of a fair income.

            Do you support or oppose the move to automate away the livelihood of these 400 workers?

            • I support the move to automate away the jobs

              Not because I want them to lose the jobs but because it’s a fundamental shift in modernizing the toll system. The issue for me is “what jobs can replace these jobs” and if those jobs aren’t to be, in this economy, how do we educate and train a more modern work force that these workers can participate in?

            • I want the word to be replaced by:


              Are the toll takers necessary? Nope, no longer. Is the guy stocking the shelves at Walmart or walking the aisles and picking orders at the nearby Amazon warehouse necessary? Yup. Pay the dude a sustainable wage, regardless of his education. Better yet, enact a tax code that generously rewards significant profit sharing and/or employee owned companies.

              • This is meaningless

                Like it or not, the requirement is a word that is helpful in partitioning a pool of applicants. “Skill” is such a word. “Necessary” is not.

                • Skills.....

                  The highest paying jobs in the USA require personal connections, not skills.

                  • You're still evading the question

                    The point is that some jobs require college or its equivalent and some do not, regardless of connections. If the position is for a teacher, that position requires an education that is not required for a toll worker. That requirement inescapably divides the applicant pool.

                    The share of high-paying jobs that were available to applicants without a college education was much larger in the 1960s than it is today. Automation is a major driver of that change.

                    There is compelling evidence that this trend will continue. The deck is already stacked against those without a college education. That will become more and more true, whatever we do.

          • You may not have the stamina or patience...

            …but every able-bodied and able-minded adult can collect tolls. At most you’ll need a day of training on procedures.

            • But I still could not do it

              And anyone who does it, in my humble opinion, has rare skills.

              • how much is it worth

                I wouldn’t collect tolls for $10 an hour.
                $20 an hour maybe 7-3 mon through fri.
                $75 an hour, I’ll stand there naked.
                I’ve had much harder more tedious jobs.

                • Exactly

                  And to the point. Whenever I hear that undocumented laborers are taking the jobs that “no American take”, I ask, how much is the pay? Sure, for $200 an hour I will take that toll collector job, bankroll enough in a year to go away on a year long European vacation and have money left over to spend time looking for another job when I return.

                  I’ll pick strawberries, clean office building after hours, all that…for a price.

                  • but

                    no one would be willing to pay $50 a quart for strawberries so you could be paid $200 an hour.
                    When I was working certain jobs had to run 24/7. In order to get people to work Sundays the company paid double time. For Christmas day it was double time and a half. Someone was always willing or low enough on the seniority list to work. Don’t like it leave, everyone knew it and it was a good place to work.

        • We need to radically reform education and labor policies

          We should make community college free and emulate programs like the Middlesex College-Regis partnership that allow community colleges to be feeder schools for liberal arts and technical programs.

          We should incentivize post-secondary vocational training programs like the Franklin Institute that provide highly skilled technical workers with good paying jobs without ther debt a degree would require.

          Increase funding and availability for vocational programs in secondary schools along with art programs, culinary programs, and other programs that lead to well laid work without requiring a formal degree.

          Lastly we need to allow greater teacher training and certification at the undergrad level, along with other health care specialties to ensure those staffing shortages in well paid and benefitted positions are filled.

          As for labor we need to make sure workers at all levels have a living wage and fair conditions. This rising tide will trickle up to other occupations and make us all more secure.

          • I would add...

            …get to the point where public high schools so consistently graduate kids well-rounded in the basic academic subjects that colleges don’t have to require core courses. This would have the effect of knocking a year’s worth of time and money off of a Bachelor’s degree.

          • Agreed, and playing devil's advocate

            I agree with everything you write here.

            Elizabeth Warren has observed, and I agree, that a living wage in Massachusetts is at least $25/hour. Are we prepared to pay for that each time we visit Dunkin Donuts or MacDonalds?

            I get that the price of a medium regular coffee or a QP with cheese won’t double, but I suspect that either it will go up or some locations will close. For franchised outlets, the franchise owner is surely going to get squeezed.

            We’re not that far away from being able to automate even these fast-food jobs. Are we willing to pay more and preserve the jobs, or will we take our business to the outlet next door that uses automation and charges less?

            • Are we prepared to pay for that each time we visit Dunkin Donuts or MacDonalds?

              If not, who do we expect to make up the difference? Not exactly sure of the numbers, but I suspect that tax dollars levied on all of us are the source of support for underpaid labor.

              In other words, I do not go to Dunkin Donuts or MacDonalds. However, the taxes that I pay help to enable people like Nigel Travis who rakes in $10 Million a year to operate their business.

              Can we, as Democrats, get this message across?

              • On that note:

                The CEO makes $10 Million, which calculates to a bit more than $4,800.00 per hour. A crew member makes about $8.50 per hour.

                If we go the “skills” route, are we to accept that the skills of the CEO are greater than the skills of the crew member by a factor of 565?

                This would mean, by this “skills = pay” bullshit that in the same universe where the CEO is 565 times greater, if the crew member has an IQ of 120, the CEO has an IQ of 67.,800 or 424 Stephen Hawkings.

                If the crew member can run a mile in eight minutes, the CEO can run that mile in under one second, or 5.5 times faster than the speed of sound.

                If “skills” determine the wage of laborers, how do we determine the wages of non-laborers?

                • There certainly is such a thing as executive or management skills...

                  …but overall I agree with your point and have long wondered whether instead of or in addition to minimum wage laws we cap the ratio of lowest paid worker in the company to CEO – say to 1:100. That way if McD’s board wants to pay their CEO something stratospheric on the idea that he should be rewarded for the company’s success they have to spread the wealth right down to the teenager behind the counter, without whom McD’s wouldn’t be in business at all. Now I’m not sure how this works if all this automation comes to pass. I also don’t accept that prices would have to jump all that much. I’d want to factcheck this before using it as a basis for policy, but I have seen the graphic making the internet rounds that suggests that European McD’s pay noticiably higher wages while charging about the same as their US counterparts for a Big Mac.

                  • There are many paths

                    but first, we need to stop this madness in accepting “skill sets” and “trickle down” and whatever either political party is peddling to keep labor quiet and keep the “donations” coming from Wall Street.

                    A tax code is a start, rewarding companies that engage in profit sharing. A labor code follows, dismantling the archaic 40 hour standard. It’s as outdated as the sun dial.

                    • Are you really being as dismissive as you sound...

                      …about the whole concept of skills? Should people not be compensated at least in part on their skills? Yes, some people are more skilled than others. Yes, some jobs require more skills than others. I didn’t think I would have to point out the obvious so unless I’m completely misunderstanding you I cannot abide what you seem to be suggesting.

                • Value is not always hourly

                  Tom Brady is not paid by the hour. He is valued because the team (usually) wins when he is the quarterback. He is not paid by the hour.

                  There is a long-standing difference between “exempt” and “non-exempt” employees. That difference recognizes that some employees add value whether or not they are on the job or at their workplace.

                  An employee hired to create a new brand who sees the new graphic design while in the shower isn’t on the clock. The company owns that design, and pays her whether that insight happens a midnight on Saturday or some Thursday morning.

                  Nobody but you suggests that “skills = pay”, and as you observe, the formulation is bullshit.

                  The reality is that if Tom Brady can’t throw a pass, he’s worthless. If he can’t learn the playbook, he’s worthless. Those skills don’t determine his wage, they determine whether or not he gets the job at all.

                  • First you tell us that...

                    …low wage earners need to improve their skills in order to earn higher wages ….and now you post

                    Nobody but you suggests that “skills = pay”,

                    No wonder I have a hard time following you. What skill set am I missing? Is there a course I can take to understand someone who contradicts themselves so often?

                    • Business basics

                      The first skill set you’re missing is, apparently, the ability to actually listen to what someone else is saying.

                      Some workers create value that has little or nothing to do with how long it takes them to create it. That is the first key concept that you’re missing.

                      A successful innovation, like a completed Tom Brady touchdown pass, creates value that has little or nothing to do with how long it takes. A failed innovation destroys value far beyond the labor cost of the failed effort.

                      There certainly are courses you can take to understand basic principles of business like these, they are offered in virtually every community college. Relevant to your confusion about the relationship between skills, pay, and value might be BUS101 (“Introduction to Business”), MAN111 (“Principles of Management”), ACC101 (“Principles of Accounting 1″), or ECO202 (“Microeconomics”).

                      I wish you good luck in your studies.

        • I provided a specturm

          Roadway workers don’t typically require college education. Drug counselors can be a spectrum from advanced medical training to, well, significant in-person experience. Teachers require advanced training — but paraprofessionals require less.

          The point is that there is a spectrum of education and training required for civil servants, and the money saved in automated tolling could certainly be reinvested in providing better services for folks, including jobs with varying amounts of education or skills (ignoring johntmay’s divergence on skills),

      • There are some problems with your argument.

        VMT would not be restricted to toll roads. All cars would have transponders and you would be taxed every day.

        It’s not electric cars that are the problem. All cars are getting better mileage and using less gasoline.

        Trucks currently pay 35% of all highway revenues, however they represent 10% of vehicles. Some do say they cause 80% of the wear though, so clearly a case can be made we’re subsidizing that industry.

        We’ re not getting to VMT without getting past privacy concerns, hence the path through AET.

        • Does. Not. Compute.

          VMT would not be restricted to toll roads. All cars would have transponders and you would be taxed every day.

          Yes, which is why connecting it to AET doesn’t make a lick of sense.

          All cars are getting better mileage and using less gasoline.

          If all cars are getting 25 percent better mileage, then increasing the gas tax by 20 percent means you get exactly the same revenue, from exactly the same auto owners. That cars are getting more MPG is not a problem at all, and it’s not the cause of declining gas tax revenue — we could simply raise the gas tax rate to collect the same number of dollars of gas tax.

          We’ re not getting to VMT without getting past privacy concerns, hence the path through AET.

          And yet AET both (a) doesn’t resolve the privacy concerns, and (b) doesn’t cover anything more than a small minority of the miles we drive in the Commonwealth.

          • You don't get it

            The entire state would have AET gantries. All cars would have transponders.

            So you would index the gas tax to increases in mileage? Still doesn’t manage the issue with electric cars. Still doesn’t manage the issue with out of state gas purchases. How much fuel do you think is purchased in MA as trucks and cars transit our state?

            AET is a opening to people getting used to the idea that they’re being tracked but it’s okay. It’s going to take a while and need assurances.

            But go on, think your closed minded thoughts.

            • I guess I don't

              The entire state would have AET gantries.

              Really? There’d be one on each end of my block? At every intersection? Or are you only going to tax highway miles? VMT doesn’t require gantries at all — it just requires GPS and transponders.

              So you would index the gas tax to increases in mileage?

              The people of MA have spoken quite clearly about indexing a gas tax. One need not formally index anything — a legislature could simply increase the gas tax periodically so that revenue tracked appropriate levels for transportation investment and reinvestment.

              Still doesn’t manage the issue with electric cars.

              At this point I don’t think it’s an issue. The number of EVs is small and given that EVs (a) put little damage on the road because they aren’t trucks, and (b) result in far less CO2, PM 2.5, PM10, Hg, SOx, NOx, and other emissions per mile than their gasoline powered brethren, I’m perfectly fine with a little cross subsidy in the near term. In the long run, you can tax EVs two ways, and I mentioned them: (a) you do it at the charger itself with a rider, (b) you simply count miles and true up periodically with a “phone home”, or a combination of the two.

              Still doesn’t manage the issue with out of state gas purchases.

              Out of state gas purchases are a “problem” that we’ve managed to overcome for nearly a century. I’m sure we’ll continue to survive.

              How much fuel do you think is purchased in MA as trucks and cars transit our state?

              Roughly 2.7 million gallons per year. Total demand has fallen by a bit less than 3/10ths of one percent per year over the past decade.

              AET is a opening to people getting used to the idea that they’re being tracked but it’s okay. It’s going to take a while and need assurances. But go on, think your closed minded thoughts.

              And here I was operating under the assumption that pointing out illogical conclusions and questioning policies was open minded when, all this time I was close minded. Thanks for letting me know that having an open mind includes blindly following along bad policy and getting used to giving up my freedom. Double plus good!

  3. Most missed the point

    Tom, thanks for posting this – it is definitely something that is hard for people to reconcile, which is why most people chose to try and change the topic to something like “but they’re patronage hires, so they don’t deserve…”

    To be honest, the idea of not having to stop for tolls is an attractive one. If it reduces congestion on highways, that is a good thing. But what about the 400 people losing their living-wage jobs? I doubt that all 400 of them were prospective scientists whose career was derailed by the lure of high-pay, low-skilled labor. More likely most of those 400 people will simply get paid less, with many paid below a living wage. Or at best, they will knock out another worker down the totem pole.

    I’m not sure that increasing the minimum wage is the ultimate answer here. I believe that it is true that as labor gets more expensive, the incentive for a business to eliminate it grows. Sometimes it is a good thing – an ATM machine is almost always much more convenient than going to a teller. Sometimes it is bad – the self-checkouts at the grocery stores are a pain to use, yet that hasn’t stopped the stores from cutting back on their checkout staff causing me to wait longer.

    I think that part of the problem is the pace at which things are happening, as well as the general direction in which the technological improvements are occurring. It seems like 40+ years ago, our collective energy was focused on making people’s lives better. The washing machine replaced the washboard. The microwave made cooking faster and easier. The highway reduced our commute times. Today, the energy seems more focused on eliminating labor or making it cheaper or more efficient (so that we need less of it). A technological improvement back then might save you an hour a day. Today it may put 20,000 people out of work nationwide.

    So maybe that is the lens through which to look at technological improvements. Maybe we need to focus our energy back on solving problems of everyday people. Or focus our energy on reducing the amount of natural resources that we use. Job-eliminating technology will still happen, but if we’re not so obsessed with destroying labor, maybe we will be able to cope with it as it happens more slowly.

    Another approach would be to focus our national energy on reducing the cost of the so-called “vital” sectors – things that people need to be able to live. Instead of increasing wages to a “living” level, decrease the amount needed to live so that it is in line with what more and more people are making. The obvious way to do this is via excellent public services.

    Housing is obviously a huge cost for most, but the problem with housing is that we have gotten very used to using it to economically segregate ourselves. If I invented something tomorrow that lowered the construction cost of a house from $300k to $30k, I don’t think people would be celebrating – I think they would be thinking “OK, now how am I going to get away from the people who can only afford a $30k house?”.

    Medical is another big one – I do believe that we would be a lot better if health care was separated from employment and was paid for via income taxes. I can’t imagine any employer is happy about dealing with health insurance companies.

    Education is another thing, both college and primary/secondary. It should be obvious, due to housing prices in Massachusetts, that the “free” primary/secondary education are not equal among communities. Why aren’t we working on that? Probably because we love having something to drive up the price of housing so that we don’t need to live near the people who can only afford a $30k house. So the cost of a good education is actually firmly baked into your housing costs, which is why there is so much resistance to making an excellent education available to everyone.

    Transportation is also a big one. This is more difficult because it is hard to make an efficient public transportation system that competes with a car. Yet a car is going to cost you $10-15k per year.

    Retirement is the other big one. People work hard now to save for the future. They need to save amounts of money that will be, for most, hugely unnecessary. Most people won’t live until they are 90, but everyone must save as if they will because they just might, and if they haven’t saved they are in big trouble. A more robust public pension program would eliminate that expense from people’s budgets.

    Food is not as big a problem as it once was, though healthy food comes at a premium. I’m not sure how to tackle that (and I’ve been writing too long).

    Imagine how low labor costs could be if people didn’t need to pay for medical, education, housing, food, transportation, and retirement.

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Fri 28 Apr 3:57 PM