Emmer: I-70 express toll — a road to doubt (column)
November 15, 2016
How much honesty should we expect from government? Other than keeping Kim Jong-Un up to date on our military thinking and the like, most people would prefer the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We do not always get it.
When pushing the Medicare drug benefit in 2003, George W. Bush suppressed the release of an official cost estimate to clear the way for the bill. It was not untruth, but nor was it a good-faith attempt to tell the whole story.
The next step up the dishonesty ladder is an actual fib. Nixon's "I am not a crook," Bill Clinton's famous denial of the Lewinski affair and Obama's "if you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance" show a durable pattern of dishonesty at the very top. It trickles down.
In his fascinating book "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty — How We Lie to Everyone and Especially Ourselves," Dan Ariely points out that dishonesty is not the vice of a handful of hooligans. Lots of otherwise good people dump trash on honesty's acres.
He describes a loosely managed museum gift shop staffed by good-hearted, elderly volunteers. The shop was losing $150,000 annually in cash and merchandise. Instead of one bad apple heisting the cash, most of the volunteers independently filched a little here and a pocketed little there.
Ariely says people want to think of themselves as fine human beings, yet they want the benefits of cheating, too. So they set a limit to their dishonesty, under which they can still think highly of themselves.
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As the stakes and passions rise, people rationalize more dishonesty.
Richard Wolff, a professor and deeply motivated political advocate, recently said, "There have been elections in which I've voted hundreds of times. And I'm not alone. Not even close." He believes his political goals are more valuable than honesty.
Jonathon Gruber was honest when defending the dishonesty used in making Obamacare sausage. "The lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. … Call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever. It (the deception) was really critical to get the bill to pass." He justifies cheating by repeating, "I would rather have this law than not."
Lower levels of government put deception to work for them, too. Cities installed traffic cameras to catch people running red lights. They started nabbing nearly 100 percent of offenders at intersections equipped with cameras.
Ticket revenues peeled rubber like a dragster. City officials quickly learned that if they shortened yellow light times, they could trick people into running more red lights, producing even more money. How cool is that?!, they thought. Chicago planned to balance its huge deficit with a big dollop of traffic fines.
The takeaway lesson: Even democratic, American governments will intentionally make policy to take advantage of citizens for cash.
Formerly mild-mannered CDOT is playing the deception game, too. The price of the eastbound express lane on Interstate 70 is advertised with big Las Vegas style signs over the road. It varies from $4 to $30 depending on traffic.
Imagine approaching the express lane, seeing the price, and doing a quick-cost benefit analysis in your mind before committing; "Ah, yeah, the sign says $6. I'd pay that, but not $7," and breezing into the express lane.
Later, you get a bill in the mail for $11.50, nearly double the stated price. "Oh," says the phone rep when you call, "You made a mistake. The price on the big sign does not apply to you. There's a little sign you missed. Pay up, buck-o."
Two small signs among a cluster of others say, "Surcharge for License Plate Toll." Nothing more.
Drivers want to know; What's a license plate toll? Who is subject to it? How much is the surcharge? The little signs answer none of those important questions. The motorist has just a few seconds to decide to use the tollway or not. What a great opportunity for CDOT to take advantage.
The little signs are trying communicate that unless you are a member of CDOT's frequent flier club — which you must prepay to join — you are going to be slapped with an additional $5.50 each time. The little signs do not get that job done. Intentionally. It is like a movie: It is all planned out.
To honest-up with the citizens who are its employers, CDOT should refund the ill-gotten gains to all the snookered motorists and drop the $5.50 "gotcha" charge. Citizens are already popping $13,000 per household to feed the state from one New Year's to the next.
At the very least, CDOT should advertise the higher price, not the teaser price, at the point of purchase.
This appears to be more than a probing mission that searches for weaknesses in peoples' financial defenses. It is an aggressive "buyer beware" philosophy that is creeping widely into public policy.
Watch yourself out there. Readjust your trust.
Share your story or offer feedback to Gypsum financial analyst Vince Emmer at email@example.com.
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