When I read about an app that increases inequality on the street by letting people auction off public parking spaces to the highest bidder, I was reminded of a way that several countries have actually equalized the burden of traffic tickets and other civil penalties by charging "day fines."
I first became aware of the concept when I lived in Stockholm for six months in 1974 and read about people being sentenced to pay an amount of "dagsböter." I discovered that the penalties for various infractions were stated in day fines and that the monetary amount was determined by multiplying the applicable day fine times the person's income for one day. This system is widely applied in Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland.
Every once in a while, stories about day fines make the news here, like when a Swedish multi-millionaire was caught speeding on the Finnish island of Åland last year and had to pay a fine of $180,000. The driver admitted that he had only himself to blame but said that he would rather "put that money on the elderly, health, day care or whatever," as if he would have done so if he hadn't been caught speeding. In 2010, NBC covered the story of a tycoon who was caught going over 180 mph through villages in Switzerland. He was driving so fast, it took him almost half a mile to stop his Mercedes. The fine, based on his income, was $962,000.
In New York City, we constantly see rich scofflaws violating the traffic laws. They may get tickets, but the fines are trivial amounts of money for the billionaires. Last night, I mentioned the concept of day fines to a member of our city council and she thought we should look into putting the system in practice here. It turns out that the concept is not totally unknown in New York City. A few years ago, a police officer told me he thought the system had been introduced on Staten Island, but I had never heard of it. So I checked online last night and found out that there was indeed a DOJ pilot program in the 90's not only in Staten Island but also in Polk County, Iowa and Maricopa Country, Arizona. The pilot program seems not to have included traffic fines. But imagine how much revenue the city could take in if we started making rich scofflaws pay meaningful fines for a change.