By John F. Di Leo -
I got my notice from the state last month: you can’t renew your plates until you get an emissions test.
Naturally, my first thought was “Sounds good to me; so I just won’t renew my plates! There’s a nice hundred dollar savings…”
But of course, realistically, that’s not an option. So I awakened early and drove to an Illinois Air Team location for the test.
I can’t complain, exactly… the employees are always polite and efficient; since I arrived before they opened, I was first in line; it took no time at all. So, let me make this clear: I have no complaint about the Illinois Air Team site I visited; if you have to have one, they’ve always been great, in my experience.
But… why DO we have to have one?
The History of Emissions Testing
Auto emissions testing is a response to a very real problem: air pollution in our big cities. Between traffic congestion and old leaded gasoline and the inefficiency of old cars, compounded by the pollution of factories in the days when America was a manufacturing powerhouse, the government recognized a need: we needed to do something to clean up the air.
So the government required that carmakers design autos that polluted less, and mandated that big metro areas like Chicago have pollution testing stations to weed out the high-polluting cars.
Fast forward to the present, in which most Chicagoland drivers (and drivers in other metros under the same requirements) don’t even remember an era before emissions testing.
Today, we drive in, have the car tested, and it passes. It takes no time (if you go at the right time of day), or it’s a considerable inconvenience (if you must go when they’re busy). So as long as we have a convenient testing center, we probably don’t complain about it. Modern cars always pass, so once it’s over, you’ve checked off that chore and you can move on with your life. Probably don’t think about it again until two years later when your vehicle is up for it again.
…unless of course you drive an older car – actually, probably, a much older car – and it fails. Then you have to take it into a shop and spend a thousand dollars or so getting enough parts replaced to make the car pass the test.
But that’s okay, isn’t it, because it’s all about the goal of cleaner air?
Food Stamps and the Welfare State
We have a poverty problem in America. We always have, of course, but it was dropping during the 19th century. As America expanded economically, most people were able to move up… from poverty to the middle class, from middle class to wealth. Immigrants arriving with nothing or their children born in ethnic ghettos would soon manage to climb out of them, through hard work and, often, entrepreneurial drive.
So, yes, there has always been poverty, but there was also a path out of it.
Then the 20th century came along, and we began to expect generosity from the government. Again, this is a real problem; it wasn’t imagined or concocted. There was, and remains, true poverty, particularly during the Great Depression when many of our biggest responses commenced.
If you didn’t have a job, you could get a check. If you didn’t have a job, you could get an apartment in public housing. If you didn’t have a job, you could get a free public school education. If you didn’t have a job, you could get food stamps, or now, a WIC or SNAP or EBT card. So you don’t have to starve or shiver or grow up illiterate anymore.
These are all well-intentioned programs. But consider what their presence has done to both incentives and the cost of opportunities:
In the old days, if you wanted to move to a better apartment, you worked harder. If you wanted to afford more or better food, you worked harder. If you wanted to afford more luxuries in life, you worked harder.
Today, once you live in the welfare state, the harder you work, the more those benefits fall away. Get a job, and the unemployment check is gone. Get a job, and the welfare benefits shrink or disappear. As they SHOULD, we would argue… but still… they do shrink or disappear. And that becomes a disincentive from the very improvements that make all the difference.
If our goal is for the family to rise up, out of welfare housing, first to a small private apartment, but then hopefully into the middle class or even better… the more generous the welfare benefits are, the harder that first step away from them becomes.
This is the problem of incentives. Without a welfare state, there are ONLY incentives to improve. But with a welfare state, those incentives are destabilized by incentives to stay put… disincentives from improvement, in fact.
In addition, we must consider the cost of opportunities.
Without a welfare state – that is, with a Constitutionally limited government – businesses would be free to do what they once did: hire the uneducated, hire the unskilled; give them a chance to get a start. Once they’re in the door, they are limited only by their own ability and drive. If they work hard, learn quickly, and impress the boss, they can move up, up, up… to team lead, or foreman, or plant manager… or from customer service rep to sales to sales director…
But with a welfare state, there is a huge burden on the company with every employee. A new hire doesn’t cost you his salary, he costs 140% of his salary (or thereabouts)… because the company must pay the matching FICA contribution and pay for benefits and pay for the state’s unemployment and worker’s comp costs. These are well-intentioned programs, but… by raising the cost burden of employing people, these programs unintentionally make it harder for a company to justify taking the risk on that new hire. They make every hiring decision harder, make every employee costlier.
In the end, it hurts exactly the people it intends to help; the welfare state makes it harder and harder for a person in the grip of the welfare state to set foot on those first couple rungs of the ladder out.
The same goes for the ridiculously-named Affordable Care Act, even more so. We had a genuine problem: many Americans could not afford health insurance and/or much healthcare. There were plenty of things the government could have done to help (Paul Ryan famously and rightly listed them on national television in 2009 and 2010)… but the government instead attacked the insurance market, demolished a system that really only needed tweaking, and created new bureaucracies and increasingly costly options. If people couldn’t afford the insurance of 2009, they sure can’t afford the insurance of 2016, at incredibly higher cost and lower actual value!
It’s all the same problem: the government attempts to address a problem for a segment of society by building a costly safety net, and all that really does is make it harder on everyone, especially the segment that was most severely affected at first!
We have a wonderful healthcare system in the United States, but it was unaffordable for some… and thanks to obamacare, it’s now unaffordable for far more people than it was before!
Why? Because the problem never really was a lack of a bureaucracy. That’s just the default offering of a statist mentality, no matter what the issue.
The problem was an insufficient level of opportunity. There were too many jobless, and too many of the employed, too, were underemployed.
We should have concentrated on creating an economic boom. If more people had moved up to a better salary, that would have decreased the health insurance problem… but instead we created a government program that increased the problem, by expanding joblessness.
When we talk of all these problems, it’s always the same thing, at the heart: lack of ability to buy food is solved with a job; lack of ability to rent an apartment is solved with a job; lack of ability to buy healthcare is solved with a job. While these welfare programs look like they help, at least in the short term, they actually do untold damage in the long term, because they both create disincentives for the individual to work to improve himself, and they make it ever harder for the free market to create the jobs they need to get out!
Auto Pollution in the Modern Era
Now, back to where we began: auto emissions testing began when cars polluted a lot. So we take in the car, we see if it pollutes, and if it does, we must go to a repair facility to improve the car so it doesn’t pollute anymore.
It all sounds lovely in theory, doesn’t it?
But what is the truth, in practice?
This program costs the taxpayers a mint. All the land, buildings, equipment, and staff, six days a week, to perform tests on vehicles.
And what’s the result of those tests? Newer cars pass, older cars fail.
So the older cars’ owners are forced to spend money – five hundred, a thousand, fifteen hundred – to have their old cars brought up to code. If they still had that money, they might have been able to trade up to a newer car, which would have both removed the other costly repair bills of an old car AND accomplished the alleged goal of improving the air quality!
We often talk about ‘regressive’ taxes, burdens that fall unfairly on the poor. This is one of the biggest of such burdens, because it’s precisely the working poor owners of old cars who are hit hardest by the well-intentioned goofiness of emissions testing. Consider:
- It’s just a huge waste of time for newer cars, because of course they pass. The number of newer cars that fail are such a statistical minority that the pollution they produce is too little to be worth the bother.
- For the old cars that we would expect to fail, the additional cost of bringing them up to code is so onerous on these mostly working-poor car owners, it just puts them further behind. That cost, specifically relative to the budgets of the working-poor in question, is utterly unjustifiable; for people who must count every transportation penny, it often has the effect of causing them to postpone much more important car-related purchases, such as auto insurance, brake repairs, alignments, and other issues that pose genuine safety concerns.
- The cost of maintaining this service – all these buildings, public employees, etc. – contribute to the unsustainable government budgets of states like Illinois. This cost drives employers and entrepreneurs out of state, drying up the tax base, necessitating ever-larger collections from an ever-shrinking pool, and again contributing to the reduction of opportunities for the poor and lower middle class to climb upward.
- And the timing itself has been insane all along, since the birth of these metropolitan emissions testing centers coincided with the (mandated) popularity of unleaded fuel and the catalytic converter. These advancements already had the country on a successful and fast-moving trend toward cleaner air; the emissions testing center archipelago was, frankly, obsolete almost at its inception! (How do you like that? I buried the lede.)
We have a new administration in Washington… a new president, a senate and house all of the same party… and soon, we can hope, a Supreme Court that will also be rational in the majority.
They have a mighty task before them – addressing the core economic problem of our society: removing the barriers to entry that keep people from a path to prosperity.
The challenge is great: they must remove the weight of costly and burdensome bureaucracy that rests like a manacle around the ankle of a runner… without leaving people behind by cutting off their benefits before they can find the private sector ticket out of dependence.
It is a challenge indeed, and both federal government and states as well need to tackle it, if our nation is to be saved.
To see the state and federal EPAs proudly smile, declare victory, and eliminate the well-intentioned but ever-more ridiculous, archaic, counterproductive and costly chain of emissions testing centers from coast to coast might well be a darned good start.
Copyright 2017 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based writer, actor, international trade consultant and recovering politician. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
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