I didn’t know it at the time, but I became a political psychologist so I could study stories like this from all different angles. The top of this story is how the City of Portland (Oregon) is handling the question of parked cars with blue “Handicapped” tags hanging from the rearview mirrors. That’s the story as it appeared in the Oregonian, which you can see here.
It’s a perfectly legitimate story, but it can be approached from so many other ways. When I was it grad school at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I began to say that I was interested in the commitment of psychosociopolitical resources. Even in grad school, that sounded pretentious so I gave it up. Not right away, of course. It does suggest, however, that I was looking for a way to look simultaneously at the way individuals formulate problems, the several ways societies try to respond to (or preempt) those problems and the way governments use the scarce resource of authority to define the issues and the outcomes. That’s still what I am interested in.
Let’s start this story at the political level. The government does, after all, set the conditions for parking and has an interest in how this scarce resource is offered. Here is Steve Novick, one of the five commissioners who run the city of Portland, Oregon.
“The idea that more than half of the people with business in the core area of downtown Portland have disabilities that preclude them from using parking meters or other forms of transportation frankly strains credulity.”
Novick has never been known for his subtlety of expression. Then again, Lynne, in the next scene, isn’t all that subtle either.
On Tuesday, an IRS employee named Lynne smoked a cigarette next to her Volvo parked outside the downtown Portland federal building. It was one of five parked cars displaying disabled placards on the street. “I have multiple issues,” she said, without going into details. “But honestly, I just couldn’t afford the $150 a month for parking. I’m not the only one doing it.”
A conversation between Novick and Lynne would go like this.
Novick: So…you don’t actually have a disability. You’re just ripping off the system.
Lynne: I have no intention of ripping off the system. I just can’t afford to pay the going rate for parking and a lot of us feel that way.
We could start thinking about personal values like integrity. Lynne needs to lie to her doctor about her condition, then accept a parking pass she doesn’t deserve, and then deprive the city of the income the parking meters should generate and deprive honestly disabled people the parking spaces they need.
It is a commonplace of political theory that a society of law-abiding citizens can get by with a remarkably modest government. This government does not intrude unduly on the lives of its citizens and, partly for that reason, it is a very inexpensive government. This small decorous government requires people not to act the way Lynne did. But if you look at the reasons Lynne gave, you see right away that her behavior is not the only problem she is carrying around. In my line of work, we call these reasons “causal attributions.” Here are two.
The first is that she would not otherwise be able to afford this particular amenity. Here is a block of cars enjoying this particular privilege. The list of things Lynne could steal using that reason is staggering. These clothes. This BMW. The restaurants from which I steal meals by using bogus credit cards. The fact is that all these are covered quite nicely by the excuse that she could not, otherwise, have afforded them. It is a very broad rationale and why should she limit it to disabled parking tags?
The second is that she is not the only one doing this. The idea that it needs to be unique to be illegal is staggering. Every drug lord can point legitimately to the existence of other drug lords; every embezzler to the actions of other embezzlers, and so on. “What I am doing is not wrong because it is not unique” is the standard she is using.
Still, you don’t buy these parking tags from a vending machine. They are like prescriptions from your doctor. Your condition is assessed and a pill or a rehabilitative program or a special permit are issued. It is your doctor’s status as a trusted professional that assures us that he or she will not simply sell these parking tags. And what if there is a Portland Association of Physicians? Would they guarantee that their members would simply not sell these parking tags and would they use fines, censures, and loss of license as tools? They might. But they will certainly not discipline a physician who is simply worn down by the persistence of a patient who wants cheap parking and who knows that wearing down her physician is the only way to get it.
You might want to rely on the community of professionals to prevent abuses of this kind, but I don’t think that is going to be effective. Or, to start from the other side, you might want to rely on the community where Lynne lives. Let’s imagine that Lynne lives in an old, stable, neighborhood which has norms of conduct that are so well agreed upon that they are never discussed among the adults. They are much discussed with the children, however, because that is one of the ways social norms are clarified and enforced and “Don’t do what our neighbor Lynne did” would certainly be one of the cautionary tales.
There could be, in other words, a community of professionals that prevents its members from abusing their control of parking tags and/or a community of neighbors capable of saying to one of their own who has offended the neighborhood’s character by using a pass everyone knows she is not entitled to, “We wish you would stop using that pass. It’s embarrassing.”
A society of solid, morally engaged communities—both professional and neighborhood, in this instance—will prevent the problem we have been looking at. And they are very inexpensive, compared with the legal solutions which government will apply if necessary. And in Portland, one of the Commissioners is concluding that something has got to be done. He is a city commissioner. He will not propose that we develop more moral citizens or more controlling communities. He will propose stricter enforcement and punitive fines. Maybe he has already.
We come, finally, to the politics part of my psychosociopolitical schema. There are lots of places the government can step in. Doctors, for instance, are regulated very lightly by governments because they have professional associations and they can “police themselves,” as the saying goes. If they don’t police themselves, there is no reason government cannot step in and charge the offending physicians. It’s a terrible solution in nearly every way, but if the choice is between this solution and just holding your nose at this persistent parking fraud, it might seem like the lesser evil to a majority of commissioners.
On-the-street surveillance is not only possible, but, as costs go today, it is relatively cheap. With very little tweaking, we can appropriate the threat made by gangsters in gangster movies, “We know who you are and we know where you park.” We did all that with surveillance cameras. And the fraud division found out that the doctor you got this pass from gave passes easily to three undercover cops posing as new patients, so he’s got some legal problems as well. Oh, and did we mention that the fine for the kind of parking you’ve been doing has just tripled? And that the next time, your driver’s license goes away, too?
Programs like these are all possible and they are all legal. They are cures that are worse than the disease, as political solutions often are. They burn up the presumptive good will of citizens as if it were an easily renewable resource. It is not. It extends surveillance from national security warrants to parking abuses and we are watched, in my judgment, way too much already. And these programs are expensive. The cameras aren’t, because of the plummeting costs of all kinds of technological solutions, but everything after the camera is much more expensive and the enhanced budget requests of all the winning departments will make sure it stays more expensive.
I called these “levels” of activity and analysis. It isn’t that an issue like this is “psychological” and therefore not “political” or “social.” The problem itself can be looked at profitably from all three—and there are more than three—perspectives. Each of these perspectives gives a different understanding of the issue and new ways to address it. And that’s what I’ve been doing since 1974, when I stopped talking about “psychosociopolitical resources.”
 As Rod Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois, said about his control of a U. S. Senate seat, “This is a fucking valuable thing, I’m not just going to give it away for fuckin’ nothin’.” I apologize for the language in my consistently vanilla blog, but I think it helps convey Blagojevich’s disdain for the law a little more clearly.