I am not living in the US right now. I live in Japan, courtesy of the US military. So some of the headlines that I read from the US seem odd at times. I will be the first to admit I am often not entirely sure what is going on, I see mostly the news from the perspective of an outsider looking in and sometimes that is a very odd view. One thing that I remember very clearly was leaving Alaska in 2009 when the gas prices there had hovered above $4 for months. In summer of 2008, the US had hit an average of $4.11 a gallon, and there was a lot of talk about who was to blame. President Bush was in office then and I remember watching this (click on Link to Fox News video). “When you hear a politician say he or she will bring down oil prices, it is BS” -Bill O’Reilly That particular phrase stood out to me, because I saw that he was right. I had lived in China for four years, from 2003-2007 and could definitely see the wisdom in noting that the president (Bush) wasn’t responsible for the prices, but the international competition was a huge contributor.
I live in Japan right now. Off base, the price per gallon is over $7.00 – I have never seen it cheaper than that. China and India are adding more cars every day to their roads. I can personally attest to being stuck in Beijing traffic, and wondering how it was affecting the rest of the world. As more people in China and India rise to middle class and start driving, the competition increases and prices go up. Politicians can’t do anything about that.
It was a relief to come to Japan and be freed from the dependency on cars. The public transportation system here is the best I have seen anywhere and a lot of my friends get by perfectly fine without a car. I didn’t even have a bicycle the four years I spent in China, and could get anywhere around the city without one.But I also know that is a construct that America doesn’t really have. Perhaps we should.
What concerns me more though is the loss of civility in politics – Bush was not to blame then; Obama is not to blame now. It’s circumstantial. Can we get beyond the political rhetoric that plagues election seasons to do something about the problem? Something more constructive than getting someone elected, whatever party they may be? It seems there is a lot of finger pointing and not much action. I don’t know the solution. Whatever it maybe however, I don’t think pointing fingers at the latest guy in office is the answer.
Now for those of you who read that and immediately think “Oh no! Not more taxes!” stop right there. I am not advocating for more taxes – I am saying the concept is brilliant. This is why:
We already pay road taxes. We just aren’t aware that we are doing so. In fact the whole time I have been in Japan, I am technically paying for roads that I don’t use back in America. (That is actually kind of annoying when I think about it!) this is because roads come out of our tax dollars anyway. That little “withholding area” on our W-4′s that we never see, never add up and never consciously think about? Well guess what – that money that you never think about goes in part to pay for the nation’s roads. The problem is this – we aren’t aware of where our money is going – so in all honesty, we don’t think about it.
When was the last time you sat down, looked at your pay-stub and calculated the taxes and then thought, “wow, I wonder how much of this is going toward roads?” If you are like the general population of the United States, you may have never thought about it. I hadn’t until I paid the tax here and then got curious. That’s okay. Our tax system is designed so that we don’t ever even see it – and so never miss it. Let me just say this – it is a lot more than I had ever thought.
One of the big arguments against public transportation is that people don’t want the government owning railways and streetcar companies. It should be for private businesses to work in the private sector. Until we can do this we are happy with our cars.
Herein lies the problem – the roads are government run, government property and we pay a lot for them. We just don’t remember.
Another argument against public transportation is this – “we won’t earn money because people won’t pay for it!” Really? Do you know how much it costs to drive? Calculate – Car payment + gas + maintenance + insurance + unexpected incidentals (oops flat!). Here is an actual breakdown – before taxes are included. Are you ready? The average American spends (for a sedan – bigger vehicles cost more) $8006 a year on a single vehicle. Check out the breakdown http://www.investopedia.com/articles/pf/08/cost-car-ownership.asp not even kidding. Do we think about how much that is? Per year? $2 train tickets sounding more reasonable?
So here is the point to all of that – the road tax here is a reminder – roads aren’t free. If we feel the pain of paying out something, we are more likely to be conscious of our behavior. Financial experts tell us that awareness is the first key to controlling our spending – first identify where your money is going. Then you will be able to make changes.
Once we are aware of what we are spending, then we are more open to change our habits. I like the Japanese tax because it forces me to think about it. It’s painful – even though in actuality we spend far less on cars here in Japan than we do in the States, I am much more aware of where my money is going here. If we implemented the road tax in America would it make us at least a little bit more aware of where our taxes are going? I think it would – it might actually help us appreciate our government more as well. We grumble about “phantom taxes” because we often don’t have any idea where it goes. If we knew where it went, went might be a little more likely to be mindful of the true value of our roads.