Politics & Policy

Gaseous Emissions

Barack Obama was not the candidate in last year’s presidential race who reminded us the most of a used-car salesman — that distinction went to his eventual running mate, Joe Biden. Since taking office, though, President Obama has sounded increasingly like the nation’s car-salesman-in-chief. Announcing his plan to instate strict caps on auto emissions — a move his own administration says could add around $2,000 to the cost of each new vehicle by 2016 — Obama said, “If you buy a car, your investment in a more fuel-efficient vehicle as a result of this standard will pay off in just three years.”

Obama’s hard sell — “This is a winning proposition for folks looking to buy a car” — is premised on some sketchy math. For one thing, experts outside the administration say the added per-vehicle cost could go as high as $8,000. You can’t save money getting more miles to the gallon if you can’t afford the car in the first place. For another, those estimated savings are based on the administration’s ability to predict gas prices seven to ten years into the future. If gas is still as cheap as it is now, savings on better mileage could be minimal.

Even if gas prices go up, the savings Obama predicts might not materialize. Cars that are more fuel efficient are cheaper to drive, increasing the likelihood that people will drive more. That wouldn’t just offset the savings — it would also offset promised reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and oil imports, to say nothing of adding to congestion.

#ad#Then there is the evidence that tighter fuel-economy standards yield auto fleets that are more dangerous in accidents. The easiest way to make a car more fuel efficient is to make it lighter. Researchers from institutions as diverse as the Brookings Institution, the National Research Council, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute have shown that after the first federal fuel-economy standards went into effect in the 1970s, cars got lighter and traffic fatalities increased as a result. The National Research Council study found that federal fuel-economy standards contribute to about 2,000 deaths per year.

The Rose Garden ceremony during which Obama announced his plan featured the participation of auto-industry leaders, who just a few years ago were adamantly opposed to stricter standards on the grounds that compliance would be too costly. A few nationalizations later, everyone is on board. Industry leaders claimed a small victory, arguing that this one national standard will prevent the dreaded scenario in which each state is allowed to set its own standard. But this claim rings false: The industry’s concern over state standards arose from California’s attempt to impose draconian restrictions on auto emissions that would have become the de facto national standard due to the state’s large size. Obama’s plan simply makes California’s targets the de jure national standard. How is that a victory for the automakers?

Clearly, the industry’s willingness to go along with Obama’s plan has more to do with the fact that A) The new restrictions were inevitable, given the alignment of the government, and B) two of the country’s three major car companies owe their continued existence to said government. This should serve as a lesson on the dangers of what the Troubled Asset Relief Program has become. The Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress. Now, thanks to the transformation of TARP into an all-purpose slush fund, they control a growing slice of the private sector, too.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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