I KNEW A GUY who used to sneak into theaters by telling the ticket-taker that the man behind him was paying. I knew another guy who used to make long-distance phone calls and charge them to the Empire State Building. I know people who don't pay their college loans and I know some people who rent apartments under rent control and then sublease them themselves for more money. I makes me mad.
I do not, though, know any of the people who did not pay their parking tickets by sending in rubber checks or checks on closed accounts. (I know one person involved, but he swears he was framed.) I congratulate them for their ingenuity, for knowing something I did not know about the system. Nevertheless, they also make me mad.
What these people have done is join the growing list of those who made fools of me. I -- fool that I am -- pay my parking tickets. I do not pay them because I think it is the right thing to do or because I think the city could use the money. I pay them because I think I have to -- that if I don't, I will get booted or towed or maybe some people from the Bureau of Traffic Adjudication will come to my house and put a boot on my television set. I pay because I think I have no choice.
This turns out to be not the case. It turns out that the District government is inept across the board -- not just down at the District Building. Some people knew that when you sent in a check to pay a parking ticket, it did not matter if the check cleared or not. Either way, the ticket was recorded as paid.
Most cities do not do business this way. In most places, the process is reversed so that if the check does not clear, no credit is given for paying the ticket. This is the logical thing to do, but in Washington, logic got outlawed some time back. I think it went to Maryland.
In a more fundamental sense, though, the District is no different than other governments and private businesses when it comes to dealing with deadbeats.It's hard to justify spending a lot of money to collect a little -- say $50 to collect $15. In fact, a lot of governments make no attempt to collect on bad checks that are written for less than $100. It's something of a rule of thumb and the reason for it is obvious. It makes no mathematical sense to spend more than could possibly be brought in.
The trouble with this approach is that it corrodes the public trust. The public -- you and me -- gets the notion that we're the only ones square enough to pay off our parking tickets or our student loans or to not cheat on welfare -- something like that. You get the notion that somehow it is all right to be a little bit of a cheat because this is either what is expected or no one really cares.
This is called the hotel towel principle. It is enunciated by people who hold the view that it is permissible to steal the hotel towel since the management expects you to and the cost of the towel is somehow figured in the bill. The contrary view is held by old fools like me who quaintly say that stealing is wrong and maybe (although the argument gets weak here) the cost of hotel rooms will go down by one towel per person if everyone left the things in their rooms.
Somehow I know the cost of hotel rooms will not go down and I know, too, that it would cost the District a lot more than it's worth to corral the deadbeats and make them pay up. But the issue is not simply money. There is something else at stake and it has to do with public confidence that the rules are being enforced and that those who break the rules will be punished.
Nowhere is this truer than in the District's parking enforcement program. The amount of money is small, trivial -- something like $200,000. In no way could it make the difference between the red and the black when it comes to the city's books, and from a strictly accounting point of view, it makes sense to simply write off the debt.
But from the point of view of those who pay our tickets, it would make more sense to spend some money to make sure the debt is collected. From the point of view of those of us who play by the rules, it would be nice if the government made sure that others did, too. At the moment, if you actually pay your tickets by checks that don't bounce, you're entitled to feel a bit foolish. I know some people who can show you how to park illegally for free. In Washington, it's easy as stealing a hotel towel.