Opinion: Precisely nothing makes sense about Gov. Newsom’s $400-per-car plan

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in San Jose on March 3.
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks in San Jose on March 3.
(Karl Mondon / Associated Press)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, March 24, 2022. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

Many of us in California praise this state for the very reasons that opportunistic politicians elsewhere criticize us. They say our taxes are high (though that’s debatable for most middle-income residents), but we point out that our billionaires are doing fine as our government sits on a massive surplus that it can use to build new infrastructure and lift people out of poverty. They say anti-growth policies have contributed to a housing and homelessness crisis; we point out that the governor they love to hate (and failed to recall) is taking on cities and counties run by his political allies over this, and our Legislature has made desperately needed changes to zoning laws to allow for more construction.

This is the warts-and-all pride in California, born partly out of right-wing ridicule, that to me defines the mainstream liberal ethos dominant in this state. It allows us to be both proud of our willingness to adopt new progressive policies, and resolutely intolerant of the persistent, endemic, conspicuous inequality in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. So we cheer our leaders when they light the way on things like marriage equality, environmental policy and immigration, and demand better from the same ones when they sweep unhoused residents out of sight or try to get around the new single-family zoning law. It’s complicated, and we’re OK that.


But there’s nothing complicated, or redeeming, or understandable about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to give $400 to each Californian per car they have registered in their name. Well, there is one thing — the reward is capped at $800 per person, meaning someone like Jay Leno won’t be getting a $70,000-debit card for the 150-plus vehicles he owns. So there’s that.

I use the word “reward” intentionally. Newsom describes it as a rebate to cover the cost of higher gas prices, but electric vehicle drivers (me included) will get the rebate too, as will any individual wealthy enough to “need” more than one car. The knock against sending debit cards to EV drivers is that we pay no gas taxes, so there’s nothing to rebate us — though that isn’t entirely true, since we pay at least $100 extra in registration fees each year, no matter how many miles we drive (as opposed to a gas burner, who can reduce his tax burden simply by driving less). But that doesn’t begin to justify giving us or anyone $400 simply for having a car right now.

Because cars, especially gas-powered ones, are generally bad. They pollute, even the electric ones. They kill. They require massive amounts of paved-over land that can be used for housing (and often did hold homes before engineers decided the freeway needed another lane, or 15). Worst of all, they turn their human operators into entitled misanthropes who casually endanger pedestrians or consider voting for an increasingly fascist political party because it promises cheaper fuel.

And I haven’t even gotten to climate change, the public preoccupation of Newsom and any other Democrat in this state who wants to get elected. In California we hear plenty about adopting alternative energy sources and making our buildings and technology more efficient (which is great!), but we hear a lot less about one of the biggest sources of global warming emissions: personal autos. So when someone like Newsom talks about the urgency of cutting emissions drastically, those who wonder “What can I do?” should hear this: We need to drive less. A lot less.

And now, in California, almost every one of these deadly machines may soon entitle its operator to $400. Carless Californians, who as The Times Editorial Board notes have also been hit by higher prices and are generally less well-off than car owners, get nothing. None of this comports with Newsom’s rhetoric about climate change or this state’s view of itself as an environmental redoubt.

Perhaps it is fitting, however, that in a state with cities designed to serve automobiles more than humans, we’d come up with a welfare system that values people according to their car ownership.

For years, she Anglicized her Mexican last name. MAGA trolls inspired her to reclaim it. This is a really touching piece by columnist Jean Guerrero, one to which I can partly relate, having grown up in a house of Norwegian speakers in the 1980s who were told they were to talk to us children only in English. Guerrero writes of being admonished never to speak Spanish in her school and of taking great pains as a teenager to suppress her Mexican and Puerto Rican identity to satisfy the expectations of the privileged white class that surrounded her. Now, having written a book about MAGA figurehead Stephen Miller and being the target of viscous and racist attacks, Guerrero decided to do something: “This flood of hate triggered in me a swelling Mexi-Rican pride. I wanted, suddenly, to say my name correctly — to cause the people snarling at me to shrivel at the sound: ‘Guerrero.’ A recent L.A. Times Today report became the first time I pronounced my last name in Spanish on the air.” L.A. Times

While our eyes are on Ukraine and Russia, Poland is becoming more autocratic. The government of Poland, led by the right-wing populist Law and Justice party, is getting a boost from other European Union and NATO countries for its outsized role in aiding its neighbor Ukraine. Problem is, warns Maciej Kisilowski, Poland may seize the opportunity and goodwill it’s getting to further its democratic backsliding: “On March 10, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ... declared key provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights unconstitutional. Poland has become the only European country — other than Russia — to repudiate the continent’s 1950 landmark human rights treaty. The government’s likely next move will be to call an early election to cement its hold on power until 2026.” L.A. Times

Speaking Russian doesn’t make someone a supporter of Putin’s war. That should go without saying, but there’s plenty of evidence Americans need reminding that speaking the same language as an autocrat isn’t the same as supporting the autocrat. Ruth Madievsky writes: “Russian speakers all over the country are being targeted with hateful messages, with some instances escalating to bomb threats. Yet not all Russian speakers in America are Russian — many of us are Jewish refugees with roots in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and other post-Soviet states. And those who are from Russia seem to overwhelmingly oppose the war.” L.A. Times

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It’s not easy to boycott companies that keep operating in Russia. But it’s the right thing to do. Editorial writer Karin Klein says boycotts tend to be too common and poorly targeted, but the brutality of Russia’s attack and her familial ties to the war in Ukraine make this an easy call: “As a Jewish woman with relatives who were Holocaust survivors, I am leery of facile comparisons to Nazism. But if anything reminds me of Hitler’s casual embrace of deadly cruelty toward the innocent, this is it. On one side of my family, both my father and my biological father — that’s a story for another day — were of Ukrainian heritage .... By the strange evolution of the world, Germany is now a progressive ally and Ukraine is led by a young Jewish man. What matters right now is that I do what I can to stand against evil where and when it is found today.” L.A. Times

Finally, I’ll see you again in your inbox two weeks from now. I go on vacation next week and will not be able to write next Saturday’s newsletter. Much as I enjoy doing this, it is work, and there are times I need a break from it. I will be back on Saturday, April 9.

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