The Phantom Tollbooth Operator: or, Your EZPass and the Mincome

Hey all! I didn’t post earlier this week because I was on a really quick research trip that took me a half-day’s drive away to a place without internet (!) I enjoyed the time away. But the driving, especially, got me thinking.

Do you remember what it was like the first time you went through an EZPass toll booth? I do; it was like magic! We zipped through this booth, past a long long long line of cars and trucks waiting to pay with cash. I remember feeling like, oh, this is what it’s like to be rich!

That wasn’t all that long ago, but now the EZPass and other similar schemes (most interchangeable at this point so you can use whatever you have anywhere in the U.S.) are nearly ubiquitous. Yes, there are still cash lanes at most toll plazas…but they too are disappearing. I’ve been through several plazas in the last couple of years where the alternative to an EZPass was either to pay with a credit card in a machine, or to pay online later. My guess is that within the next five or at most ten years, there will be only a single person stationed at most toll plazas (to help sort out human errors and problems with the machinery, not to take cash.)

A Brief History of the Rise, Decline, and Fall of the Tollbooth Operator

Tollbooth operators have a long history — various kinds of safe-passage fees have been collected as long as we have written records — but their modern form dates to the 18th century, when British law established turnpike trusts as the main way to collect and disburse funds to improve roads, which were needed due to increasing travel to and from various cities, as well as for the post. At various points along a turnpike, a family would live in a house right by a barrier or gate across the road; when a traveler wanted to go through, the family would collect the fee and open the gate (literally turning the pike!) As you can imagine, this led to a fair amount of skulduggery: bribes, smuggling, embezzling (by the turnpike operator), robbery (of the turnpike operator), etc. Like highwaymen, turnpike operators lived on and by the open road, not in the safety of a village, and like highwaymen they could be seen as menaces or as romantic figures. (There’s a wonderful Georgette Heyer romance set at a 19th century turnpike: The Toll-Gate.)

Fast forward to the mid 20th century, and travel on interstate highways becomes frequent as many Americans own cars — more than 65 million by the end of the 1950s, which more doubled the number owned in 1950. Many of the roads they travel on are toll roads, and suddenly tollbooth operators are needed in great numbers. Like most blue-collar jobs in those days, these are unionized positions; they’re not exactly enabling workers to join the 1%, but they’re steady, reasonably paid, and so on. When I was a little kid in the 1980s, I remember wanting to be a tollbooth operator when I grew up. (I was thinking about meeting lots of people every day and getting to listen to music all day in my nice little homey booth, not about the exhaust fumes, low pay, undoubtedly nasty customers, and minimal bathroom breaks. Plus they all have to have repetitive stress injuries in their shoulders, right?)

Fast forward again, and while there are obviously still people employed as tollbooth operators today, their numbers have to have been decimated and will decline still more as older, unionized operators with protected jobs retire or die (I couldn’t find any actual statistics with a quick search, but common sense seems good enough here.) What once was a growth industry, then provided a steady living for thousands of families, has been nearly totally destroyed in just a couple of decades since the widespread implementation of electronic toll collection starting in the late 1990s.This is a different matter from the offshoring of manufacturing jobs; it’s vanishingly unlikely in practice, but at least in theory, some combination of rising fuel costs, tariffs, and other legal measures could pressure manufacturing into returning to the U.S. Nothing is going to reverse the decline and fall of the middle class tollbooth operator, since they haven’t been replaced by cheaper workers elsewhere — they’ve been replaced by machines that work really, really well and make life better for basically everyone but the operators. And this is happening in other areas too. I used to totally refuse to go through a self-checkout line at the store; not only did I identify them as ways for the stores to save on labor costs (which I don’t approve of) but also they didn’t work very well. They were balky, didn’t read bar codes reliably, old people got confused by them and jammed up the line while the one employee on duty tried to help them, I got confused by them and jammed up the line…. But at least at the local Meijer, the tech is noticeably improving. If I only have a few items, I often go through the self-checkout line now. The error rate has dropped to something fairly small and the experience is much smoother…and yes, faster than waiting in a single line for an employee. Not pointing in a good direction for checkout workers. And this also goes for fast-food cashiers (some places let you order on an ipad or similar thing now, and more inevitably will.)

OK, so what?

While I was already planning this post, a study came out that I think is really relevant. It found that white Americans with a high school diploma have an increasing mortality rate. Much of it is due to drug abuse and suicide, and this is the same population that increasingly reports disability (have trouble walking even a couple of blocks, constant pain). It seems we have a lot of people literally dying of despair. And obviously, this is the exact population that’s increasingly being made economically irrelevant by vast changes in global business (offshoring) and technology (EZPass!) Again, those toll booth jobs — those would have been good jobs. They’re just not there anymore. And there’s a serious limit to how many of them can be replaced by, for example, Amazon warehouse jobs, which are ALSO liable to be replaced by machines in fairly short order.

A Society That Supports Helping, Rather Than Producing?

The thing is, it’s not like we’ve run out of work as a society just because we no longer need tollbooth operators. We badly need all sorts of what academics call “care work” — childcare (which is insanely expensive, and yet the workers make right around the minimum wage), eldercare. I would add to that various kinds of community work that used to be done by women in one-income families: running the Christmas bazaar! Putting together the charity dinner! Volunteering at the school! Helping refugees and immigrants settle into the community, learn English, etc! I suppose in some communities it still is done by those women, but in my lifetime I’ve seen the number of people available for it decrease. We could go a step further and include some stuff that maybe isn’t societally necessary, but sure is nice to have around, and where you can’t make enough of an income to meet basic needs of housing and transportation and health care: community gardening, extremely small-scale farming, music and art making.

That’s the crux of the problem right there: there is a LOT of work people could be doing, even without much of an education, to make our country a better place to live in for all of us. Useful work. Rewarding work. The problem is, most of that work either doesn’t pay at all, or doesn’t pay enough to keep up with the real costs of life here (housing, a functional car, health care.) It’s really not sufficient to say that every ex-tollbooth operator with a high school diploma should retrain to become a computer programmer, or be totally out of luck. There needs to be some way for people who are not highly educated — and frankly, not necessarily go-getters — to contribute usefully to the community and keep a roof over their heads.

Enter the Mincome!

I read about this a few years back. A town in Canada experimented for a few years in the 70s with guaranteeing a basic income for all adults, regardless of whether or not they worked for money. The idea was to find out if such a scheme would disincentivize work. The study was never compiled though and the data sat around in boxes for decades until some scholars looked into it in the 2000s. Here’s their report (you can also google Mincome and find summaries/news articles.) The way it worked was that if you didn’t make any money at all, you got the basic minimum guaranteed income. If you did work for money, the Mincome was reduced by $.50 for every dollar you made, but of course you got to keep extra money on top of it, so there was still an economic incentive to work for money — but if you chose not to for whatever reason, you were still going to have enough coming in to contribute to keeping a roof over the family head.

The upshot is that the only two groups who significantly cut back on work hours were teenagers (who focused more on school) and new mothers. Everyone was less stressed. Health and education outcomes improved significantly. It turns out that guaranteeing a basic level of income, simply by reducing the fear of total familial poverty, makes everything MUCH BETTER because it helps to fend off despair. And it generates the kinds of caring work investments that we need to flourish as human beings.

It’s depressing to me how vanishingly unlikely it is that the US will institute such a thing, despite the relative ease with which we could (via, yup, redistribution of wealth! Did I mention I’m a Christian socialist?) However, it would really help to solve a lot of the major social problems which are being created now — and will be increasingly in the future — by the automation of the jobs that used to be available to people with less education. A minimum income wouldn’t likely mean that everyone would just give up on work. It would likely mean, rather, that people who lose their jobs would be less stressed, and people who go into low-paying care work would have a support under their income.


16 thoughts on “The Phantom Tollbooth Operator: or, Your EZPass and the Mincome

  1. I was not aware of that report, though I certainly hear of the guaranteed annual income concept. It’s still considered to be a pretty radical idea in Canada, and I’m sure it would be considered much more radical in the US. Curbing fear of poverty, reducing despair, and generating caring work are all fabulous results of this experiment. It is fascinating, I think, that only teens and new mothers took the opportunity to work less as a result of the guaranteed income. I won’t be surprised to hear this idea floating around a bit more in the years ahead – and I’m inclined to float it myself now. Thanks for an enlightening read.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      It’s super radical, but it seems like it would do nothing but good — when I look at the U.S. I see a society which is unbelievably stressed out for basically no good reason. Almost everyone except for a vanishingly small number of people live on the brink of financial disaster and for a lot of us it has less to do with hustle/willingness to work, and more to do with these seismic global economic and technological forces. Which isn’t to say that people couldn’t approach it better, but I think we’re learning through cognitive psych right now that one of the persistent effects of stress is that it makes you a shitty decision maker. It would be one thing if we were, I don’t know, Bolivia, but we’re not — there’s *plenty* of money to go around and also plenty of work. It’s just that much of the work doesn’t pay and much of the work that used to pay is no longer extant. We could solve a lot of problems with one stroke.

  2. Hannah says:

    Although I really hate the idea of a Mincome, the pragmatist in me hates bureacracy even more. If we’re going to support the idea of a minimum standard of living (which I support, though my minimum may be different than yours), then the Mincome is the most efficient solution, and I think the money should come from the government wealth redistribution (taxation) not from imposed wage increases.

    The fact of the matter is that the leap from about $10 to $18 hour for most workers is less achievable than the leap from $50K to $150k. Service occupations persist in low payment because its difficult to scale service work with technology, and when it does scale it results in decreased jobs rather than increased wages (by the way, the inverse tends to be true in manufacturing, agriculture, medical and most “knowledge jobs”), and the so called “job skills” that are needed for a $10/hr job are barely even registered as skills for that $18/hr job.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That’s also one of the things I like about the taxation–>guaranteed income thing — the lack of bureaucracy. I’ve spent a lot of time with and around the truly poor, and one of the things that always floors me is the amount of time and energy it takes to access what, in the end, are pretty minimal government benefits. No wonder people don’t have time to better themselves: the amount of bus-taking and line-standing and form-filling that goes on is just tremendous. Especially the line-standing. And there’s really no evidence that it does very much good to put up so many barriers. I would say that in the US about $15,000/adult (tied to inflation) seems reasonable. There are some places where that would allow a frugal person to go without work entirely, and others where it would only really work as a stay-at-home parent’s supplement to a full-time wage earner, but on the whole I think it would do what we both want and keep people out of dire poverty with a minimum (as it were) of fuss and bother.

      1. Hannah says:

        You can have 18K per adult, if you meet the following demands.
        -$18K is structured as a tax credit.
        -Taxation starts at 22% and caps at 37%
        -Eliminate all deductions (including retirement and home mortgage and charitable giving)
        -Capital gains taxes stay flat at 15%
        -Eliminate social security (including disability) and medicare
        -Remove government involvement from the health insurance market (or create a legit single payer system that is run more efficiently than Canada’s and is less big brotherish than Singapore’s)

        1. thesingledollar says:

          That works for me! I was about to object to eliminating medicare, but if we’re doing it in favor of a good single-payer system then that’s great. I do think we need a disability system in place — $18K might do it for an adult that gets injured and can no longer work, but for people with severe intellectual or physical disabilities (like my cousin born with cerebral palsy) we need more of a financial support system for caregivers than would be provided the mincome. Other than that, I’m on board! Let’s get elected to dictatorships and we can implement it.

  3. Ok, so many thoughts. Must organize…

    1. Omg, no freaking way. I also had a fantasy of being a tollbooth operator when I was a little kid!!!!!! This lasted for years! And it was exactly what you describe: I thought it would be nice and cozy to just sit in that booth all day and stare out the window, and maybe listen to music, and sort of meet random people briefly and watch them drive off. I am not making this up. We are cooking twins AND tollbooth fantasy twins.

    2. Man, how tough to watch your job become obsolete. I’ve been hearing a lot about taxi drivers recently too, although at least they may be able to go and work for Uber (though that doesn’t help them recoup the cost of their medallion).

    3. This is the first I’ve heard of Mincome, and it is fascinating. And yeah, I agree that the U.S. would never consider this for a second. Grrr. But if we did, it might solve a lot of our problems, for the reasons you mention.

    4. I feel like you should try to publish this article for money somewhere.

    5. Seriously, is this topic within the scope of your academic field?


    1. Oh, and:

      6. I appreciate the Norton Juster reference! 🙂

    2. thesingledollar says:

      LOL. I wonder how many other weird dreamy kids had this same fantasy? I’m glad you liked this! Alas, while this topic is close enough to my academic field that it’s informed by my general knowledge (I once did write a journal article about care work and undercompensation!) it’s not close enough to what I’m doing now to be worth expanding and polishing. It’ll just have to hang out here on the internet 🙂

  4. Fascinating report. I don’t believe there is any easy solution to poverty, but I love the idea of sharing more resources to reduce inequity.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I don’t think a basic income would eliminate all our problems. But I do think that an economy and society focused more on sharing and less on winning (winning what, exactly? The right to die way richer than everyone else?) would be a much happier, less stressed out and bitter, kind of place to live.

  5. Megan says:

    You might be interested in this article:

    I don’t know that I totally love the approach discussed in this article (crowdfunding someone’s basic income), but it does give some good resources on learning more about guaranteed income.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Ooooh, interesting. I think crowdfunding is a pretty awful idea for the reasons expressed halfway through the article (too unreliable, basically, the whole point is to make the system responsive to everyone and not just the “lottery winners”) but I totally agree it’s got good resources for more info and it makes you think. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Some of the work I do is advocacy around educational reform. As much as I love education for its own sake — I’m still a purist like that — it’s completely true that most school districts have done very little to think about what future jobs will actually be like, and what students will need to know to do these jobs. And that has a trickle-up effect, I think, in society of not thinking in terms of how we retrain our existing workforce to do the jobs that are actually available. It’s crazy to me that we can be a country with so many resources, and yet have this huge skills gap that means we have tons of open jobs and tons of unemployed people, but there’s seemingly no way to make these two things match up. How can that be??? I know we can do better.

    I love the idea of the mincome. What’s been especially telling to me in recent months is how many FI bloggers I’ve seen hit their FI number…. and then keep working. I don’t think that will be us, but it’s proof that even people with lots of money want to work on some fundamental level. For those who say, “Poor people are lazy,” or “People just want to mooch off welfare and not work,” I say, “You don’t understand human nature.” When most people say they don’t want to work anymore, what they really mean is, “I need a long vacation.” And that’s a socialist issue for another day — paid vacation time in the U.S.! 🙂

    Keep these great ideas flowing — I completely love this post. 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I think at bottom most people do want to work — in the sense of making things or contributing to society in some way. We’re social creatures, even us introverts 🙂 But all our public policies assume the existence of vast number of moochers, and so much of the real and fulfilling work that needs to be done isn’t accounted for financially in our current version of a capitalist system; the work of raising and caring for human beings is assumed to be almost valueless, whereas the work of managing a company or playing football is so vastly valuable that the people who do those jobs could never use all the money effectively in their lifespans. Sigh.

      Interesting that you do work around education reform. I think that a big problem I see in college students isn’t really to do with “skills for tomorrow’s jobs” — the problem is that we can’t really predict those jobs. I mean, we can do a better job of teaching all kinds of current skills, but one thing we know is that the economy is moving fast enough that most concrete skills become outdated very quickly. My computer science major friends in college from 15 years ago are still employed, but they’re not using the programming they learned then. So my preferred education reform is actually to focus on raising creative, thoughtful people who know how to learn and keep moving, and figure that kind of person will be able to keep up with whatever is happening out there.

      1. I think I said it badly, but yes, the soft skills are by far the most important piece. Instead of raising kids who can sit still and listen to a lecture and memorize facts from a text book, we need critical thinkers and good communicators, etc., etc., etc.

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