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Buy the Right Car and You May Never Notice the Budget Holes

Audi runs ads in hopes of selling cars. That’s what ads are supposed to do. But, in yesterday’s New York Times, a full-page ad for the Audi A6 appeared twice and it not only aimed to sell cars, it promoted the idea that wealthy Americans can buy protection from the public decay likely to surround us all as our cities, our states, and our nation reduce investment in our public systems and structures. (A similar ad is also running on television, which you can watch below.)

First, let’s talk about the ad they did run. “The roads are underfunded by $450 billion. With the right car you may never notice,” reads the Audi ad. It depicts a $50,000 car facing down six potholes, and makes the case that the car’s advanced systems are so smart, “maybe you won’t even notice the giant hole in the road maintenance budget.”

The ad reflects a major challenge facing all public systems and structures across the country. It acknowledges that budget cuts are having an impact. As the effects of budget cuts hit schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, fire and police departments, will those with the means to do so simply buy the cars, the school tuition, the health care and the private security services that will allow them not to notice the giant holes in local, state and federal budgets? 

Many will not. Like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, many people of wealth recognize that their own success depended upon the public structures and systems that we have built over generations and that have created the conditions for innovation, economic growth and individual quality of life. They think of themselves not merely as taxpayers, but as citizens, and they view taxes not just as dollars out of their pockets, but as civic capital that finances America’s quality of life. Across the country there are business leaders who are raising the alarm about the decay of public education, safety, infrastructure, state universities, and health care -- and who are willing to pay more in taxes to help stop the erosion of our public assets.

But, some will. In the 2009 Atlantic article, “The Rise of the New Global Elite,” Chrystia Freeland created a portrait of today’s super-rich, who are different from their predecessors: “more hardworking and meritocratic, but less connected to the nations that granted the opportunity—and the countrymen they are leaving ever further behind.”  he made the case that the wealthy of all nations have more affinity with one another today than they do with the majority in their own communities and countries. Will that tendency now become a direct marketing ploy: buy our product to insulate yourself from the effects of budget cuts? It is a cynical sales pitch and I’m hoping those wealthy Americans who support their communities and their country will reject this approach. 

This week, President Obama is calling us to be a different kind of nation in his proposal for the “Buffett Rule,” a millionaire’s minimum tax.” He is urging us to recognize that all of us have a responsibility to invest in the public systems and structures that make our nation strong. He is asking that we all come together to rebuild our economy—and to fix the potholes.