image taken from despair.com’s latest t-shirt

Before we get to this message’s main event, I’ll throw another brief shoutout to Pope Francis. Sure, he leads one of the world’s socially most regressive organizations, but he seems to be pulling in the right direction, and ultimately, he’s not in fact that powerful — his level of authority is more Barack Obama than Stephen Harper, let alone Kim Jong-Il.

While there’s general awareness of the doctrine of Papal infallibility, it was only formalized in the 19th century, and has only ever been invoked twice. So it’s one of many late-arriving concepts we secular moderns commonly think has always been part the world’s most populous religion. A couple others include:
– having a personal relationship with Jesus (famously invented by German Pietists in the 17th century, and infamously rejected in the 19th century by their very own Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader: Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche), and
– original sin (5th century, and a Western Christian exclusive; Eastern Orthodox Christians scratch their heads at it…)
It was pretty cool that Francis gave a shoutout to Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his speeches, too; Catholics and Protestants don’t always get along, and it’s a sign of openness when one can refer to the brilliance of one’s competitors in the marketplace of ideas. My favourite-ever inter-religious example comes from the Christian “Acts” (“of the Apostles”), in chapter 26. We’re told how Saul [also the name of a Jewish king] was travelling on the road to Damascus after having persecuted the followers of Christ, where he’s confronted by the voice of God. In this dramatic, climactic moment, Jesus … quotes a line from a 500-year old Greek theatre play. Boom!! Mic drop!

Jesus says, “why do you kick at the goads?”, which is from a contextually-identical scene in Euripides’ The Bacchae, where a king [Pentheus] who is persecuting the followers of a God [Dionysus] is confronted by that God. It’s awesome stuff. (Adherents can take comfort that since this is already the third time (!) the author has told this story in his chronicle, he can probably be forgiven for adding a dramatic flourish, if only to avoid boring his audience.)

But enough sideshow, on to the main event!

It turns out that many of VW’s diesels were programmed to go into extra-clean mode when being tested on a dynamometer — and never anytime else. The software code probably went something like this:

IF (only one axle is rotating)
THEN (you’re probably being tested by regulators, so go into best-impressions mode)
ELSE (don’t bother)

Heads are rolling, and the company has set aside about $6 billion to cover expected costs and fines. Which is generous, considering GM’s fine for faulty ignition switches was only $900 million – and that defect directly killed 124 people! (To be fair, the excessive nitrogen oxides released from VW’s 11 million affected vehicles would’ve increased the number of respiratory illness-related deaths where they were driven.)

Now, owing to the perps’ and victims’ skin tones, some commentators are to going dismiss this as yet another case of “white-on-white” crime, implying that the problem is internal to that ethnic community, and doesn’t concern broader society as a whole. And they do have a point — most white-collar crime is committed by whites, who dominate the population in minimum-security prisons (like William Head Penitentiary near Victoria, a.k.a Club Fed, which features a six-hole golf course).

Some years back, New York City introduced a policy, which its supporters claim helped reduce crime, which was already on a decade-long downtrend, but that’s beside the point. :) “Stop-and-frisk” allowed police officers to ignore civil liberties and, well, stop and frisk people engaging in suspicious behaviour such as walking while black, talking while black, and standing while black. (And they wonder why black Americans have higher rates of hypertension…!)

Having seen the stats, I’m sold! And with the VW scandal, the time is right to expand this proven program to white, white-collar criminals. A “Wall Street Stop-and-Frisk” (as outlined by The Daily Show a couple years back) would allow officers to approach individuals who choose to emulate white-collar criminals’ preferred attire — a tailored suit and tie — and pat them down. Electronic communications play central roles in most such crime nowadays, so their devices (laptops, smartphones) could be temporarily confiscated under pre-existing civil forfeiture laws until the proper paperwork is filed for their return.

Unfortunately, that probably isn’t enough of a deterrent, because business titans (and wannabe business titans) know the value of a good lawyer, and tend to have the money to pay for one. Which is why I strongly favour — and here I’m actually being serious for a moment — that the accused in every criminal trial be randomly assigned a public defender. The benefits would be threefold:

1. quality of legal representation would no longer make the difference between someone being found innocent or guilty.

2. legal aid funding would probably reach sustainable levels (we don’t even have the right to an attorney, here in Canada).

3. white collar criminals would think very carefully before deciding whether to commit crimes, knowing they’ll be playing Russian roulette any time they need a criminal lawyer.

The logic is that if the well-to-do know they’ll be forced to go through the same system as everyone else, they’ll be willing to fund it adequately out of their own self-interest, because they’ll have “skin in the game”. (Mandatory single-tier universal healthcare follows the same principle.)

As it stands today (in the U.S. at least, though similar issues surely carry over in Canada) public defenders are so overloaded (in one part of the US, they spent an average of as little as seven minutes with a client before trial) they convince 90% of their clients to plea bargain; to admit to having committed a lesser crime, in return for lesser punishment. Private lawyers almost never advise doing so. This means the likelihood of your getting a criminal record after an arrest depends more on your bank balance than the prosecution’s evidence. And that’s hardly the kind of society most societies aspire to be.

Oh, and while I’m being delusionally idealistic, I’d also make the punishment should fit the financial value of the crime, meaning that instead of working on their putting game, embezzlers and frauds would get to go to the kinds of prisons Chris Rock used to do comedy routines about. :)

The most generous estimates on the value of a life tend to be around $10 million, with conservatives arguing it’s probably closer to $1 million because society “saves” from not having to pay out pensions or medical bills. Taking a cue from Francis and acknowledging the possible merit in my erstwhile rivals’ argument, a run-of-the-mill $10 million white-collar crime (and they are, sadly, run-of-the-mill) would then fall somewhere in the “mass murder” spectrum. And while that might not quite deserve Guantanamo Bay, it’d certainly be considered worse than Club Fed.  Heck, in that kind of a world, even *I* would go along with Stephen Harper’s determination to build more jails!  ;)

– – – – – – –

On the transportation side, there’s a lot of hope that electric vehicles (fuel cell electric vehicles among them) could benefit from “dieselgate”, especially given that none of the big three German automakers have actually denied “tuning” their diesel systems to behave better on test. (VW is almost certainly the worst offender, though: BMW and Mercedes could easily afford to install effective, expensive post-treatment systems into their luxury vehicles, precisely because they sell expensive luxury vehicles.)

That said, it’s tough to imagine diesel-car buyers deciding en masse to go electric. More plausible, I think, would be VW, BMW and Mercedes ramping up their EV/FCEV offerings (and especially their related marketing efforts) in the next few years — to try to put the scandal behind them.

Tesla stands to benefit, since three of its biggest luxury vehicle competitors’ brands have gone mildly radioactive — but probably only modestly, since the auto sector is a strange duck. Laptops and smartphones, and even household appliances, are relatively inexpensive, more-or-less one-size-fits-all items, so it’s not *that* difficult for an individual product to grab a big chunk of the market. Cars are far more expensive, and people in different countries and communities have very different needs relating to family size, hobbies, commuting distances and roads. As a result, the best-selling car in the world (the Toyota Corolla) has about 1% global market share, and the top three companies only split about 30% share between them.

And the above is before you factor in branding and brand loyalty — you can probably name eight carmakers, but can you name four fridge makers? — and the kind of patriotic overlay that causes the 20-odd best-selling vehicles in Germany each year to be from German brands. :)

All in all, though, this can only be a positive for electrified transportation. Diesel’s setback opens a window for proponents to really push truly clean, high-torque power train options (and for the guilty parties to do so to in recognition of their past misdeeds). And while the changeover won’t be nearly as dramatic as the way the dinosaurs’ extinction allowed mammals to take their place in the ecosystem, even a modest shift would be economically and ecologically awesome. As much as my political tribe likes to emphasize the environmental ethic, to use the words of another ideological rival (in this case the guy who invented pay-as-you-go solar panels) “clean energy technologies are the greatest wealth creation opportunity on the planet.” :)

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