Are We Slapping or Servicing Motorists?

In Wednesday’s Star, 16 May 2007, Jim Byers wrote a piece called N.Y. mayor wants tax on drivers. While this purports to be a simple piece of reporting, his language colors his work with his personal grudge against congestion pricing and biases the reader.

When you report on congestion pricing by calling it a “tax”, you automatically have the reader hear “punitive” rather than “pay-for-use”. In Toronto, this is especially a problem because the new taxing powers that Mayor Miller has are just that – taxing powers. Conversations about sin taxes and road-user-fees are lumped together in past reporting to make it all look like a huge fiscal correction to our City’s financial woes. The value of congestion pricing to us motorists and to the environment is lost in the fiscal emergency and in the biased reporting language.

Here is At Mayors’ Summit, Bloomberg Campaigns for Clean Air published on the same day by the NYT. This reporter used “fee” and not “tax” – and its her city!

Here is a piece from the New Yorker that also discusses the matter with less bias. The words “fees”, “tolls”, and “pricing” figure prominently (which is what they are). “Tax” only shows up in the sentence “taxis would be exempt”.

But Mr Byers can be forgiven his use of the word “tax” – he’s hardly the first. In fact, Byers is in good semantic company. The economist Greg Mankiw discusses this…

“there is some debate about whether road pricing is really a Pigovian tax or just a user fee for consuming a scarce resource. …. When people are not charged (or are undercharged) for using a common resource such as a congested road, then incremental use of the resource entails a negative externality on other users. Imposing a user fee for the scarce resource can be described as a Pigovian tax to deal with this externality. Similarly, a conventional Pigovian tax such as a tax on pollution emissions can be described as a user fee for consuming clean air. The distinction between user fee and Pigovian tax in these cases is purely semantic.”

But Byer’s one-word version of Professor Mankiw’s long-winded but carefully drawn distinction abuses his readers.

Unfortunately, he compounds his error, when he writes: “[Bloomberg] has proposed slapping an $8 (U.S.) fee on drivers who come into Manhattan…”.

“Slapping” carries clearly punitive connotations, bringing to mind more of a traffic fine than a per-use fee. If Bloomberg uses those fees to fund transit and to open roads or to do something green, he's providing more service to motorists than he is slapping them for driving. Why else did Stockholmers vote their road-use charge back in? Not because they felt slapped.

The truth of the matter is that journalists and reporters often use language in ways that harm the environment by negating the value that bold politicians such as Bloomberg or Livingstone bring to the table.

Journalists’ greatest value to society is to uncover the truth. Defending one’s god-given entitlement to free access to roads brings no value.

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