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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Beyond Binary Thinking

Jarrett Walker's keynote presentation on March 17th brought several hundred participants, and hopefully signals a new beginning for transit in Rhode Island. The full keynote slidehow is here. I'm trying to track down some audio for it-- I think there's a video of the speech somewhere. 

One point that stuck out for me as meaningful is the mistakes that thinking in binaries can produce about class in the U.S.

Walker uses these slides to show that class is actually a spectrum, and that our goal in growing the transit system isn't to appeal to the guy with a BMW in the driveway, but to the people just outside the range of those currently served by the system.

My choice to not drive is one that a lot of people consciously or not view as at one end or the other of this binary. I often feel embarrassed in one group for the perception of being poor only to go to the next group and feel impinged by the notion that I'm an elitist. Thinking outside this binary system is a really important thing if we're going to move ahead. I'm not dirt poor, although there are economic restraints that impact me and make not driving make sense for me. I'm also definitely not an elitist. My politics around driving are motivated by my interest in the best outcomes for people-- ordinary working people.

In my own family growing up, my parents owned two cars, neither of which at any time were ever in good shape. You could alternately describe us as either working class or lower-middle-class, but we were definitely not dirt poor: my dad was an assistant manager at a grocery store, and my mom was sometimes a stay-at-home mom and later a school secretary. Later, my parents got divorced, which knocked us down a rung, but I usually thought of myself growing up as middle class and even privileged. And yet the experiences I saw were the ones other people lecture to me about when they tell me I just don't understand how the policies I advocate impact working class people.

I remember this one set of cars we had: there was the "Flintstonemobile" that was a twenty-plus-year-old car whose floor had rusted out. You could see the ground move past you in the drivers' seat. The "Good Car" was the other car: that one had had the key break off in the ignition, and my parents didn't want and/or probably didn't have the money to get the problem properly fixed. So the "Good Car" had to be hot-wired each morning.

One of the stresses of growing up was that if one of these cars-- or one of the series of other crappy cars we had over my growing up-- died then we had to get up extra early and take my dad to work, and then come back and get ready for school. 

Because I grew up in an inner suburb of Philadelphia, I had a surprising number of relatives who did not drive: my grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, a cousin, two siblings, a great aunt. I had lots of relatives who drove, but only rarely: another grandmother, an uncle, several cousins. I remember on days when one of my family's cars broke down, I would think about how someday I am not going to drive. And that remains one of my motivating forces in not being a driver. Driving sucks, and it's expensive. We can build a society where driving is appropriately rare (if occasionally necessary) instead of having a society where not driving makes one an oddball. That society exists elsewhere, and it existed in the United States until the 1950s or '60s.

When we look to an issue like the car tax, we need to think about what our goals are. We should give money back to ordinary, working class people: everyone from the very poor up to the middle class. But we should do so in a way that includes everyone, builds a more livable and environmentally sound world, and which creates sustained economic growth. Nothing could be more opposite of this than proposals to cut the car tax. We should be expanding tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit at the state level, and lowering the sales tax. But let's keep the car tax and make it one-state-one-rate.

And let's remember that class is not a binary.


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