Obama's Electric Car Aid Goes Bust

No one, no matter how bright, can possibly know what is in the best interest of everybody.


If Tolkien was right that the burned hand teaches best, then a question arises: Will President Obama ever learn?

In a recent appearance on 60 Minutes, Obama traded in his old analogy about the car in the ditch for a new one, about a ship in rough seas. No matter how well the captain—Obama—steers it, if the ship is being tossed about with violent abandon, then the passengers will not enjoy the ride.

The implication is that Obama is doing a fine job, so don't blame him. The president is right, in part: The voters should not blame him. But he is wrong about why. It's not because the president is a great economic helmsman. He is an awful one. Consider his performance in just one sector: energy. The Obama administration has shoveled boxcars full of money to "green" energy, with demonstrably deplorable results.

Those results go well beyond Solyndra. Take the administration's policy of pushing electric cars, in which it has invested billions of taxpayer dollars. As The Washington Post reported recently, "analysts say the risk is rising that taxpayers in many cases will not see a return on their money soon, if ever. Instead, they warn that some federally subsidized companies could be forced to shut down in coming months." A123 Systems, a battery maker the administration supported to the tune of nearly $400 million, recently announced layoffs "instead of up to 3,000 new Michigan jobs as Obama and the company had predicted," the story reported.

Despite a $7,500 tax credit for each vehicle sold, in October GM unloaded about 1,000 Chevy Volts out of 187,000 total cars sold that month. Even if the administration's rosy prediction of 1 million electric vehicles by 2015 proves correct, that is a drop in the bucket in a nation with 250 million cars, so the effect on greenhouse-gas emissions—the ostensible justification for all this intervention—would be negligible.

What's more, electric cars get their juice largely from coal-fired power plants, making claims about emissions highly dubious. Battery disposal is a huge environmental problem. Electric cars and plug-in hybrids are dangerous and expensive to work on. (Ask your local mechanic for an education on that score.) And they are hugely impractical. The Volt, a four-door compact, averages 30-40 miles on battery power alone. Then it needs to recharge for 10 hours.

Clara Ford, Henry Ford's wife, owned an electric car. There's a reason the idea has been collecting dust for the past century. Electric cars one day may take their place alongside the Internet as one of the great life-changing innovations of our time. But right now it looks as though they will join what Jimmy Carter called the "keystone" of his energy policy, the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, in the rogues' gallery of gawdawful government flops.

In short, then, the president is using political power to reallocate economic resources to make people adopt an inferior technology that nobody wants. So much for his stellar performance as captain of the economy.

But Obama is less concerned with what the public wants than what he thinks is best for it. This is modern liberalism's chief project: empowering a cognitive elite to correct what it sees as the poor choices of the stupid, venal masses. (Energy Secretary Steven Chu neatly summarized this approach when he argued for new lightbulb standards by saying, "We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.") And the president is more cognitively elite than most. Or at least he thinks he is, referring sometimes to "teachable moments," i.e., occasions for people to be given the gift of his enlightenment.

As California Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat, wrote recently in The Hill, "President Obama has behaved more like Professor Obama," constantly lecturing others about their shortcomings and trying to impose his will on them. "In the president's first year in office, his administration suffered from what I call 'idea disease.' Every week, and sometimes almost every day, the administration rolled out a new program for the country." You don't get to the Oval Office through a surplus of humility. Still, it takes a remarkable amount of hubris to come up with so many great new ideas about how other people ought to live their lives.

No one, no matter how bright, can possibly know what is in the best interest of everybody. Nor can any government, no matter how large, possibly manage the monumental complexity of the modern economy, or even one sector of it. Much of the current economic mess is indeed beyond Obama's control. The trouble is, he doesn't think so. And the harder Washington tries to run everything, the more likely it will bollix everything up. The pages of history are littered with case studies, which now include Solyndra and (probably) electric cars.

Perhaps one day Obama will look back on them as teachable moments, too.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.