Barack Obama, hubris & fuel standards

President Obama says his new fuel-efficiency standards will help end our dependence on oil, which is another way of saying that once these rules go into effect, we will instead be dependent on hubris.

After all, to believe this plan can work, you have to believe Obama can sit in the White House and mandate new technology so awesomely powerful that, in just seven more years, the average passenger car sold in this country will get 39 miles to the gallon.

But that’s not all, because assuming you do pull off that miracle by dent of executive demand, you will have to pull off another one — persuading American consumers to buy these light, more expensive, hybrid and electric vehicles despite their decided tastes in the opposite direction. The bigger, the better, for lots and lots of us, except when high gas prices are consuming money we’d rather use to feed the family.

Some people think Obama has already proven himself a miracle worker. For heaven’s sake, Detroit auto executives were cheering him on as he announced the kind of goals they have done their best to stop in the past. But consider it for a minute, as some news analysts did, and you see why it was all they could do to keep from also bowing with mumbled mentions of their unworthiness.

It’s no revelation that the whole industry is suffering and Chrysler and General Motors are about to croak. The doctor in the house is Obama, or more precisely, the federal government and the billions in taxpayer dollars that it is doling out to these companies on its terms. Fighting new fuel standards would be pointless at best and ruinous at worst. Instead, you swallow what little business sense you have left and hope for the best. You maybe even hope the government will give billions to consumers to help buy cars they don’t really want.

Winning over troubled auto companies with lots and lots of money — as well as with an understanding there would be one set of national standards instead of a variety of differing state standards — is not nearly so huge a deal as somehow effecting this latest grandiose vision without any number of unintended consequences piled atop a final, meager accomplishment, if any.

We’ve been there before. To meet past fuel standards, auto companies reduced the size of cars. When in a small car, you are more likely to be killed or seriously injured in crashes, and experts from all sorts of prestigious institutions — Brookings, Harvard and more — said the policy could have been a factor in as many as 2,000 deaths a year, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute reminds us.

Significantly increased fatalities might be less likely this time around, thanks to tougher materials and the formulas by which the standards would be applied. But we will certainly have lighter cars and possibilities of all kinds of other mishaps as companies struggle to find a number of technology answers they do not currently possess. The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that a detailed study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration concluded that it could well be a waste of resources to try to implement standards in the range of what Obama now proposes.

What’s at work here is the arrogant idea that government can do great, grand things in short order because it is so, so smart, so insightful and so much more imbued with high ideals than anyone else. Much of history differs, demonstrating that central planners cannot conceivably imagine every contingency — even some that are very, very big and potentially devastating — and that prudence counts, caution counts, that political motives are almost always suspect and that moving forward one careful step at a time in the least coercive fashion possible is almost always better.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)