The Universal Notebook: Do the right thing

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Earlier this month we paid $775.28 to replace the catalytic converter on one of our cars. The old catalytic converter did not affect the operation of the car at all and the new one didn’t improve it, but in order to get a state inspection sticker it had to be replaced. I wasn’t at all pleased to part with $775.28, but to me it was a perfect example of why government regulation is necessary to make us all do the right thing.

I’m not sure how much cleaner the air around here is because we have a new catalytic converter – a device that reduces the toxicity of emissions from internal combustion engines – but I have to believe the cumulative effect on emissions is significant. Of course, if I lived anywhere in Maine except Cumberland County, I wouldn’t have had to replace the converter.

Back in 1998, when the Legislature reached a compromise on exhaust system requirements for state vehicle inspections, only cars in the state’s most populous county were required to have functioning catalytic converters. The right thing, of course, would be for all vehicles statewide to meet the same requirement. But, hey, while we may be a little poorer, we are also more virtuous for being required to do the right thing.

Doing the right thing has been on my mind a lot lately as I watch the Obama administration doing the right thing time and time again as it sorts out and sets straight the mess left behind by the previous administration.

With a left-handed stroke of a pen, President Obama, for example, has mandated that U.S. automakers build vehicles that average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Many states had been pushing for these standards for years, but the previous administration blocked them. Surprisingly, the auto industry seems to welcome the new standards. Not only is it do-able, it’s the right thing to do.

I’m also all in favor of Sen. Susan Collins’ cash-for-clunkers proposal to provide vouchers to people who trade in gas-guzzlers for new cars that get better mileage and pollute less. Not all government regulation has to be in the form of a mandate. Incentives work, too.

There are some businesses, however, that would never do the right thing unless the government required them to, and the credit card industry is one of them. The so-called “tricks and traps” of the credit card industry are a pox upon the economy, escalating interest rates to usurious levels without notice and charging all manner of hidden fees to disguise the real cost of credit. The newly passed credit card reform bill will go a long way toward curbing these predatory practices, but it stops short of the right thing, which would be putting a cap on interest rates.

Opponents of the bill warn that it will result in a tighter credit market, but that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. Wasn’t it libertine credit that got us into the economic mess we’re in at the moment?

I know for a fact that the credit market is already tightening up. A few years ago when we refinanced our home, we just called a bank and they mailed us a pile of forms to sign. Now we are refinancing again to take advantage of lower interest rates and, despite our excellent credit rating, the same bank is demanding income-tax forms, pay stubs, bank statements and so much documentation that I’m beginning to think they don’t trust us.

Of course, the major problem with the credit card reform legislation is that some Red State Okie attached an amendment to it allowing visitors to national parks to carry loaded guns. Doesn’t it occur to anyone in Washington that it is cynical and wrong to attach completely unrelated amendments to bills in order pass measures that would otherwise be defeated? Well it is.

I’m hoping that once the Obama administration deals with the economy, health care, the environment, education, and foreign policy (which it has shown signs of doing quite effectively in less than six months), it will eventually get around to doing the right thing about such unethical practices as corporate campaign contributions, filibusters, earmarks and bogus congressional amendments.

In the meantime, I suggest staying out of Acadia National Park.

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beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him. “Backyard Maine,” a collection of his columns, is available now at local bookstores.