Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why car-sharing services rule, and why taxing them at 20% is lame.

Zipcar: Main site.

Since I moved to Pioneer Square in Seattle, I knew that trying to own a car would be stupid. I can walk to nearly everything I need, which is great exercise, and I can ride the bus to work. 90% of the time I do not need a car.

However, I do have friends in South King County. I do have situations where I need to reach several transit-poor locations in succession. Or maybe I want to group a bunch of errands together and run them all over town. So what do I do without a car?

Car-sharing is the answer, and without it, living in city would be a lot less practical. Zipcar is the dominant provider of this service. You simply reserve a car online when you need it and pick it up, using it for any interval the car is available, from one hour to four days. You then return it to the same spot at the end of your reservation. There are a few rules you need to follow, but once you get used to them, it becomes second nature.

Zipcar provides many benefits both to users and non-users. Here are the benefits to users:

* You get a new or close-to-new car without a car payment. This means you're unlikely to suffer a breakdown.
* You can drive a wide variety of cars tailor-made to your purpose. Want to just run some errands? Get a Prius. Want to carpool to a party? Get a minivan. Need to run to IKEA? Get a pickup. Want to impress a client or date? Get a BMW. Want a pleasure drive? Get a MINI Cooper. Etc, etc.
* For a small damage waiver, you don't have to worry about damage or insurance. Though it's smart to carry a non-car-owner's liability and uninsured motorist policy anyway (inexpensive), you're covered for minor insults via Zipcar's master policy.
* Gas is included in your rental fee, so you know how much you're paying for driving at all times. It becomes a known, budgetable item. The only surprise fees you may encounter is if you break a rule, like not returning on time or forgetting to leave 1/4 tank in the car, and such fees are clearly enumerated.
* If you live in city, Zipcars are now everywhere. Sometimes it's hard to find one on a nice Saturday afternoon, but I have NEVER been unable to find a car within a mile of my house (and I don't mind walknig a mile). The convenience is compelling.
* Unless you have young children, not having a car enables you to afford to live in areas previously considered out of reach financially.

I drive Zipcar a lot and I typically pay around $500/month. $100 of this would pay for gas anyway, so imagine trying to buy/insure/pay taxes on/park NEW cars for $400/month. You just can't do it. And if you don't have to go all the obscure places I do, you can probably get by on much less.

Here are the benefits for everyone else:

* Downtown apartment/condo vacancy rates are reaching sky-high levels, and one of the things that helps reverse this is car-sharing. People not having to need cars all the time makes living downtown more attractive, especially for singles.
* Increased density makes things better for local economies...people walking by a shop are FAR more likely to stop in on a whim and spend money than people driving by, and the money saved by not having a car allows people to spend it.
* Massively reduced environmental impact. One car now serves an average of 10-15 people or more. Rather than each of us buying a car that sits unused in a lot somewhere, we each pool together and use ONE car, together.
* However, it doesn't measurably hurt car companies. Zipcar steadily acquires new cars in fleets from both manufacturers and other places, which is cheaper for automakers to deal with, and helps keep people employed. Further, it's better to sell 1/15th of a car to someone every few years than it is to not sell new cars to city dwellers at ALL.
* Having to reserve a car makes you THINK about whether you need a car. This helps you rearrange your life to use cars as little as possible, and walk or bike more. This takes cars off of freeways and out of parking lots, freeing up more space for other people.
* Car-sharing encourages people to live closer to city centers, reducing commute times, increasing leisure time, and clearing the freeways for people who want/need to live farther out.

It's compelling: Car-sharing is one step towards a more sustainable culture.

So, my only complaint about all this is the following: After all this, why do Zipcar users get saddled with up to 20% in taxes? Not only do we have to pay full "use taxes" (equivalent to sales taxes), but we are often hit with rental car taxes as well.

WHY? We still pay taxes on gas, and Zipcar pays taxes on buying the cars and registering them. Zipcar MIGHT even be paying business & occupation taxes on rental fees. Why, then, do we have to pay additional taxes when we are doing our communities a huge favor by abandoning cars and living a more sustainable lifestyle? This is INSANE.

I had a politician argue with me that asking for tax relief on car sharing in a time of fiscal crisis is not good politically, but really, how much is Washington State collecting from Zipcar? I don't think they're going to miss the money. But 20% might make the difference between someone being able to afford car sharing or not!

Thus, today, I'm starting the Twitter tag #NoTaxesOnCarSharing to see if we can start a social movement against this unfair practice by government.

Please help by spreading the word.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why I want to win, and win the right way.

I got into a tweet fight with @toddeherman about this on Sunday. Todd is a long-time colleague of mine, and he is also currently the director of social media for the Republican National Committee. Though I would like to consider him a friend, obviously that friendship is going to be strained by our fundamentally incompatible political goals, and we're certainly going to get into it from time to time, and Sunday was no exception.

I'm not interested in repeating the thread here, though if I get bored later, I might try to reconstruct it. Basically, what was at issue was my anarchist leanings. Todd expressed skepticism that I could be an anarchist if I backed Obama-care, the welfare state, unions, etc.

What Todd says is true under ordinary circumstances. A "pure" anarchist quivers in rage at any sort of government no matter what it tries to do. However, such anarchists aren't very effective, because they have no place to put a stake in the ground and work for change. They are immediately isolated and neutralized as threats, probably by the criminal justice system, and thus they have no hope of having any impact.

Because I understand this, I have to be more crafty in my approach to anarchism. It comes down to this: I resent terribly being forced to support the system of global capitalism as a matter of personal survival. Just about no matter what I do, I have to participate in the destruction of people, species, ecosystems, and possibly the planet's future ability to sustain any form of significant multicellular life. Sure, it SICKENS me.

But if all I do is run around blowing stuff up like my anarchist ancestors did, what good will it do? I'll end up in jail and/or dead, and the system will go on. I can't fight this system by targeting people with violence and making THEM miserable in revenge. That doesn't get me anywhere. First, I'll alienate the very people I'm trying to help. Second, I'll be neutralized. I guess on that score I'm not a very good anarchist.

Or maybe I'm the best anarchist ever. Because I have no effective choice, I no longer have to feel bad about participating. Maybe I can use the rewards of the capitalist system to work towards its destruction. Maybe I can put my financial resources and creative talents working towards its destruction from the inside. Maybe I can get others to join me.

Look at it this way. America, as it is today, is doomed. More generally, capitalism. More generally, our civilization itself. All are based on endless expansion, endless exploitation, endless violence, and endless environmental destruction. Well, not endless. Eventually you expand to the edges of the earth. Eventually you run out of new resources and people to exploit. Eventually you kill everyone you can get away with killing. Eventually you wreck the planet so much you can no longer survive. Sooner or later, the system WILL collapse. And in that way, I will win.

Unfortunately, if I win that way, I'll be dead and so will everyone else. So will most of the life on the planet, and it will be millions of years, if ever, before the ecosystems recover.

So, what to do? Well, we have to replace our civilization with one NOT based on endless expansion, exploitation, violence, and environmental destruction. Given that few civilizations have ever survived without these principles, I am not realistically expecting to succeed. But it's our only chance, and I get a thrill towards striving towards low-probability high-reward outcomes.

Thus, today I am a progressive. I fight for unions. I fight for the welfare state. I fight for universal single-payer healthcare. Development of sustainable agriculture, cities, and energy. And I'm going to get more and more insistent we implement these things. And if it undermines the "efficiencies" of capitalism, GOOD, because we need to undermine its "efficiencies" before those efficiencies kill all of us.

Tomorrow, I'll take it to the next level and fight for internationalism. It wasn't communism and fascism that killed a billion people in the last two centuries. It was NATIONALISM, and nationalism is a central feature of the mental disease that is Western Civilization. And we must get rid of it. We must learn how to find a way to relate to other people without regard to lines on a map.

I don't know what happens after that. If we are still here, though, I'm sure the path will be obvious. And I hope to see you there to walk down that path with me.

Oh, and I'm not even going to be sneaky about it. I'm going to do this right under your nose. If I do end up dead or in jail, you'll know that it was because someone is lying about what America stands for. Which, sure, most of the "America first" people do anyway, but that's besides the point.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The state of things, seven weeks before the election.

It's pretty obvious that the political right has royally screwed this country in terms of foreign relations and domestic policies. They have no answers going forward, they KNOW they have no answers going forward, and allowing their opponents to discover and implement any answers would freeze them out of politics for another generation (just as it did in the 30s), so they are inventing as many non-issues as possible so they can maximize chaos in case some plan becomes apparent.

Everything that has transpired this year in the political arena has done so according to this design. Inexplicably, the Democrats have let them get away with it, which makes me fear that the Democrats either have no answers either, or are too afraid to implement them (my money's on the latter).