Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tax Dollar Ferraris

It had been a lovely, lovely spring here in and around Washington, DC.  Summer is finally arriving.

We've not had one for years, as our winters have blanged right into summer.  One day, it's bitter.  The next day, it's fetid and cloying and oppressive.  Why our nation chose to build its capitol on Dagobah is ever beyond me, but I suppose we're stuck with it.

But this spring was a spring.  Gorgeous days, with clear blue skies and perfect temperatures.  Nights with a hint of lingering crispness.  You couldn't have asked for more.

And that meant that the Ferraris came out to play.

My commute to my little church takes me through some of the richest turf in Washington, and snakes along the beautiful country roads of the Western Upper Montgomery County Agriculture Reserve.

This spring, it feels like every Washingtonian who owns a trophy vehicle has taken it out on those roads.  They've been as omnipresent as the pollen.  That means, on my every commute, I pass at least two Ferraris.  And a Lamborghini.  Mixed in with the Mercedes and Jags and Lexuses (Lexi?) that are every other vehicle here, there are the toy cars.  Behind the wheel, men of a certain age, the tanned and toned silverbacks of industry.

These are vehicles that sit covered in the three-to-five car garages of the mansions that stretch for miles up the Potomac.  They aren't driven, not often, because though they are impossibly fabulous, they aren't meant for daily--or even monthly--use.  That's why you have your Audi or your Mercedes, which are as common in certain Washington suburbs as Chevys and Toyotas.

The Ferraris and Lamborghinis say: I am not just well off.  I am absurdly well off, so wildly and excessively successful that I can purchase a car that I drive once or twice a year.

It's the kind of car that you show off during a catered dinner party, as you bring a few select guests into the garage to ogle it over your third martini.

These are unquestionably beautiful vehicles.  I admire them, as objects of industrial art.  The boy in me finds them delightful.

Yet I wonder at them, too, because there is only one industry in Washington.  We are in the business of government here.  I have no beef with that.  Government has a role in any society.

But what's troubling--knowing how much the rest of the country still struggles with underemployment and the explosive deindustrialization of our nation--is that the resources that my fellow citizens are obligated to render under Caesar are buying these cars.

Perhaps it's my pastor's bias against ostentation and consumption, but if your position is that of a servant, then that implies certain things.  I look seriously askance at pastors who enrich themselves at the expense of their flock, and I have the same feeling about public servants.  Should they be desperate and hungry?  No.  But neither should they be Croesus.

The owners of these vehicles aren't public servants, though, not technically.  The federal employees and oft-reviled "bureaucrats" putter around in their Hondas and Fords and Subarus, and live in smaller townhomes and old ramblers.

The owners of these glistening trophies are the lawyers and politicos, the lobbyists and--mostly--the captains of those vaunted "public-private partnerships."  These are the businesses who took over so many of the tasks of governance from public servants back in the Reagan Years.  It was all done in the name of "efficiency," which is absurd.  Profit-driven systems thrive on inefficiency.  They feast on it.  What is profit, after all, but inefficiency?

And for those businesses, government has proven very, very profitable indeed.

That seems worth remembering, as those gorgeous tax-bought Ferraris are tucked away until the first beautiful fall morning in Washington.