Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Meter-maids: Gears of Tyranny

That's right, meter-maids. I live in San Francisco where, like most cities, the parking situation is abysmal. At the wrong time of day, you can drive around for an hour looking for a spot. In my neighborhood and pretty much the entire City, you need a permit to park for more than 2 hours.

And like many cities, San Francisco is governed by an absolute con-man, Gavin Newsom. Yes, he has forced progress towards securing equal rights and treatment for homosexuals. And he deserves praise for that fact regardless.

But believe me, it was not out of any benevolent love for them. It was motivated by Newsom's sole focus - career advancement.

It was low-hanging, high-profile political fruit in a city as liberal as SF. Most of us agree with it so he doesn't risk his cushy job and it's a controversial issue so he gets his pretty face on television. Meanwhile, the actual City is falling into disarray.

Well, that's too dramatic. But nothing of use to the average citizen gets done while our cost of living skyrockets.

This is where meter-maids enter the fray. In order to pump more money into the City's dry coffers, the con man and his powers-that-be increased the penalty for the most common parking fine (violating the hourly limit) from $50 to $60. And here's the disgusting part - they decreased the frequency with which they handed out a cheaper $50 ticket for parking in areas scheduled for street cleaning. Those went from weekly to twice per month.

Why is that the disgusting part? For three simple reasons:

(A) It penalizes the citizens since the streets don't get cleaned as often (not that they need it; the wind and hills tend to take care of most of that, but the principle holds).

(B) They decreased the frequency of the cheaper, less common ticket.

(C) They publicly announced this decrease; what they didn't mention was that enforcement of the more common, more expensive hourly-violation ticket would be turned over to the newly-minted Parking Gestapo.

The last is the real kicker. It used to be that you could park for entire days in certain spots without even risking a ticket. Regardless of the neighborhood, if you moved your car just once around the middle of the day, there was no chance you'd get a ticket. Certain rules were enforced more strictly (the tow-away lane during rush hour on main arteries for instance). Even then, the maids usually gave you at least a 30 minute buffer after the triggering event.

Not. Any. More.

If you stay in the same spot passed the limit, they will nail you.

Not only that, but they've changed tactics as well. No longer do they use chalk to mark your car so there is no way to tell if the maid has been by. They started handing out tickets after 6 PM and before noon. They started giving out multiple tickets to the same car in one day.

And the zeal they've taken to their new roles makes them gears of tyranny. Not the only ones mind you nor the most significant. But significant as perfect representations of how backwards this country is, how it is being manipulated.

Bear with me.

Unless they come from wealthy families, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that your average meter-maid is scraping by. At most, he or she has a small buffer to ride out occasional rainy days. In other words, I'm assuming that the most successful meter-maids are middle-class. This could be totally wrong; I have no factual basis for this assumption. But it feels safe.

And who do they give out tickets too?

In SF, the VAST majority of parking tickets go to the middle-class and the poor. The wealthy drive luxury cars and park them in garages. They pay outrageous sums for parking (and that's another story), but they rarely get parking tickets.

And who does the money go to?

It goes to the City, which means it goes to the politicians. And as we have seen for the last 20 years, the politicians rarely turn that money back on the poor and middle-class. The majority must go to whatever pet-project the power-brokers are scheming up. A small bit may be used to better the lives of average citizens, but who can tell? The system has so many twists and turns, so many inefficiencies that it's virtually impossible to tell where it goes. And that is no accident.

In fact, the twist and turns are gears just like the meter-maids. They enable the ruling class to rig the game. And rig the game it has. But first it created the game and named it trickle-down economics.

The idea came from the golden age of America when people had stronger social consciences, including the ruling class. Sure, it was just as greedy and ruthless, but it played fair to a certain extent. The ruling class let everyone play the same game by the same rules (well, every white male that is). If you worked hard and played the game well, you could start poor and finish rich. And so the trickle-down idea was born - wealth from the upper-class would work its way into the hands of the lower classes via industriousness.

It sounded great. Still does. In theory. But the reality is not as pretty.

The reality has been an ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor ever since those cursed words left Reagan's mouth. The natural question is what went wrong?

The answer is simple. The ruling class changed the game but didn't tell the rest of the players. It convinced the lower classes that all things were possible through hard work and then, once heads were down and noses were to the grindstone, the ruling class changed the rules.

Need an example? Take the most recent: subprime mortgages.

The ruling class removed various forms of regulation on mortgage-lenders, who tended to be banks and other institutions of the ruling class. This allowed the banks to issue loans with great introductory rates to people who would then buy a house they obviously couldn't afford. Even better, the insane risk associated with such practices was fragmented and passed along to the open market.

Of course, the average recipient of a subprime mortgage was, by definition, un-savvy in the world of finance and the average lender, by definition, was. The banks understood that they were abusing trust to build a house of cards that the slightest breeze could blow over. They knew that the generous introductory rates would expire, that the housing market would slow down eventually, and that the borrowers would then be forced to default unless saved by a miracle.

That's why the ruling class allowed them to pass the risk onto the open market. This ensured that, if (really when) the house of cards ever fell, the banks and their ruling class buddies wouldn't be left alone to clean it up. And sure enough, guess who's paying to clean up that $700 billion mess? (NOTE: this is an enormous simplification of the crisis, but it hits the main points).

So the ruling class created the game, convinced the masses to play, and then changed the rules. It wasn't content with a huge headstart and tons of momentum. But it still had a problem - democracy.

The ruling class couldn't keep the game going without staying in control. Staying in control in a democracy meant getting numbers and that was the one thing the ruling class lacked. It needed (and continues to need) traitors from the lower classes; people who would consciously or subconsciously help it stay in power - by vote, by deed, or by word.

And that brings me full circle, back to meter-maids.

They are members of the middle-class moving money from their brethren into the hands of politicians, who then use it to develop ties with upper-class cronies and power-brokers. The maids work for the ruling class while ensuring that they and people like them will almost never graduate to join its ranks. They are the traitors.

Again, not the only ones. But traitors nonetheless.

It would be one thing if meter-maids were doing some great service for the City. But they aren't. I still haven't heard an adequate justification for why I can't park outside a residence (for which I pay over $2000 a month in rent) for more than two hours without buying a permit. In fact, the only justification I've ever heard is that it is a way to generate money for the City - both via permits and fines.

You could argue that this is an important service, and a fair one considering the fines could be avoided by a simple and cheap permit process (cheaper than even one ticket).

But consider this. Members of our government routinely torch the Iraqi government, accusing it of all manner of transgressions while insisting that the Iraqis will not get their act together until we force them to by withdrawing.

That's rich.

Because what are our taxes, municipal fines, etc.? They are EXACTLY THE SAME THING. They allows our politicians - federal and State - to continue spending haphazardly while lining their pockets and those of their cronies. Why increase efficiency and spend intelligently when you can just tell the average American that we all have to do our part when those gross abuses create economic crisis?

And that's exactly what they do, which is where those twists and turns come in really handy.

The system is such a mess that it takes a PhD in economics to figure out where our dollars are going. Since the average American hasn't quite finished his or her PhD yet, we have to go on trust. Unfortunately, that often means trusting the very politicians who control the system and waste our dollars. It is no surprise that their solution is not personal restraint and accountability.

It is tax more and spend like usual.

And the meter-maids help them do it.

Yes, they are just doing their jobs to earn a living and sometimes that requires sacrificing your principles.

But isn't that exactly what the Wall Street traders and subprime lenders were doing - selling out values to earn a living? True, they were driven by pure greed instead of the need to survive; they were already living luxuriously and probably always had. But is that an argument for or against meter-maids?

After all, if you're going to sell out, why do it just to get by? There are plenty jobs you could do just to get by while staying true to a more respectable value system.

Even in this economy. Flip a burger. Wash a car. Shoot, go work at the DMV.

At least you wouldn't be helping the politicians and fat cats take what's left of our money just so they don't have to make the sacrifices they demand of us.

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