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 good people dump trash on honesty’s acres.
He describes a loosely managed museum gift shop staffed by warm-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 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.
As the stakes and passions rise, people rationalize more dishonesty.
Dr. 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 his 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”. It is apparently a widely shared sentiment.
Lower levels of government put deception to work for them, too. Some big cities installed traffic cameras to catch people running red lights. They started nabbing nearly 100% of offenders at intersections equipped with cameras.
Ticket revenues peeled rubber like a dragster at the strip. 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 take-away lesson: Even democratic, American governments will intentionally make policy to take financial advantage of citizens.
Formerly mild-mannered CDOT is playing the game, too. The price of the new eastbound express lane on I-70 is advertised with big, variable message 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 no more”, 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, illuminated 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 wonderful 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, 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 that applies to the general public at the point of purchase, not price for people who bought toll credits in advance.
This appears to be more than a probing mission that searches for weaknesses in peoples’ financial defenses. It is an aggressive “buyer beware” strategy has crept into public policy.
Watch yourself out there. Readjust your trust.
Summit County Assistant Manager Thad Noll responds to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (click here). A copy of that response is also on this site (click here).
This column or a very similar version was published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (click here) and in the Summit Daily News (click here) on 15 November 2016, and in the Vail Daily on 9 December 2016 (click here).
 Thomas R. Oliver, Philip R. Lee, Helen L. Lipton, The Milbank Quarterly, June 2004, A Political History of Medicare and Prescription Drug Coverage