Last month marked the 15th anniversary of the settlement of Plotkin vs. General Electric, the landmark “greenwashing” lawsuit I filed in 1993. At the time, GE was misleading consumers by selling phony lookalike energy efficient light bulbs that were in fact just old fashioned incandescent wolves in green packaging.
I took no money from the case. But I required G.E. to make labeling changes and to pony up $3.25 million dollars in consumer refunds and donations to environmental and public service groups. The labeling changes made it easier for the manufacturers of real energy efficient light bulbs, which were just then entering the marketplace, to distinguish their products on the shelves. Plotkin vs. GE also more firmly established the ability of environmental activists to turn to the courts when state and federal government agencies fail to punish greenwashing. The settlement we achieved created a powerful deterrent that continues to produce benefits to this day.
In the meantime, though, greenwashing has become a virtual industry in the political and policy worlds. Take, for example, the growing push for economically regressive and environmentally problematic HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes. HOT lanes are toll lanes on public highways. Prices are set dynamically so that HOT lanes keep moving even if all the other lanes are stuck. Governor Schwarzenegger and many leading Democrats favor the idea and use it to paint themselves green. HOT lanes are also popular with many affluent motorists who love the idea of driving their SUVs in the carpool lane for what amounts to pocket change. It’s an odd alliance.
Unfortunately, support for HOT lanes is also becoming a litmus test issue for some environmental groups when they evaluate political candidates, apparently without much thought about the economic consequences, particularly for the poor.
HOT lane backers push their plan by claiming that only a limited number of lanes will be involved, typically just one to start. But in Europe, where many of these experiments began, “congestion management” programs have since morphed into systems that essentially allow rich drivers to hog public roads. Give the upper crust the fast lane and, it turns out, pretty soon they want the whole road.
HOT lanes are an example of one of the worst forms of regressive taxation imaginable. Like all regressive taxes, they exact a higher percentage of income from the poor. But in this case, they also tax the very mobility of the poor, making it harder for them to commute, including to work and school, which can effectively lock people into low end jobs and poverty that they might otherwise escape.
What little thought the proponents of HOT lanes have given to their impact on the poor appears to be in the category of “let them eat cake.” One widely-cited report recommending HOT lanes even dismissed concerns they were unfair to the poor by noting that service workers can use the lanes to get to their clients' houses more quickly:
“… studies of Orange County’s SR-91 show that the variable-priced toll lanes are not used exclusively by the wealthy. The ability to save time and reduce uncertainty confers substantial benefits to all drivers, including service professionals who can make more service calls…”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission are fast-tracking a HOT lane implementation plan that could be devastating for students at area community colleges. At De Anza College in Cupertino, California, for example, more than 10,000 students commute to school each day. For many, this is the only reasonable path towards upward mobility. I know. Thirty years ago, I was one of those students, only to return more recently to serve on the college district’s board of trustees.
A proposed fee of $5 a day per trip on Highway 85 during peak rush hour, as envisioned, would boost a typical De Anza College commuter student’s expenses by as much as $100 a month. That burden is sure to grow over time. Escaping poverty is often a game of inches. Our surveys indicate that thousands of our students live at or near the poverty level. Each additional expense imposed by our government makes a high quality college education less accessible.
HOT lane proponents say that over the long run the impact on the poor will be positive because the tolls will be used to improve public transit, which will benefit less affluent citizens and increase use of public transportation.
But this is out of touch with the realities of life in places like Silicon Valley, where the automobile is still the most practical way for many people to get to work. What may work for investment bankers taking transit to downtown San Francisco doesn’t work for a student who lives in Mountain View and needs to get to Cupertino and then to a job in Redwood City each day.
What’s more, the promised transportation improvements may take decades to implement and may never meet the real world transit needs of working students, not to mention those who also have to stop to pick up their children, get groceries or complete errands on the same trip.
But one thing is for sure. While we wait for those HOT lane financed transit improvements to kick in, a generation, maybe more, will find it harder to attend school or get to their jobs.
Global warming is a very real problem. But it can and must be addressed in far better and more equitable ways. Those less regressive ideas include higher taxes on gas guzzlers, road electrification, remote sensing (“by wire”) vehicles, increased subsidies and public support infrastructure for carpools, home-based work and or possibly even a boost in industrial levies based on employee commute profiles. All of these advances will require government action and a communal effort. But each of these more significant steps are far less likely to occur if rich divers can easily get wherever they want to go quickly at the expense of everyone else. That’s the road the current elitist HOT lanes proposal takes us down.
It also raises the question of what comes next. Will this same crowd of economic elitists also want to make public parks and beaches off limits to all but the affluent, too? After all, those are also getting pretty crowded. Or we will defend a more traditional American value: public spaces, including roads, are created, maintained, protected and improved by the public to benefit the public.
When General Electric put phony energy efficient light bulbs on stores shelves two decades ago, taking the company to court was the smart way to fight back. Unfortunately, there is no court we can petition to ensure that regressive tax policies aren't greenwashed in ways that trample the rights of the poor, community college students and working people. But there is at least one place we can fight for the smarter, more effective and more equitable environmental policies we need: the state legislature.
Hal Plotkin is a veteran Silicon Valley journalist and commentator, a founding editor of Marketplace on public radio, and the founder of the Center for Media Change, Inc., a Palo Alto-based 501(c)3 non-profit that enables crowd-funding of high-quality journalism.