At Vox Nova, a I offered comments on this post praising a move by Congress to force automakers to make cars that get better mileage. I probably should have done what I'm doing now, offering my thoughts here.
Why is it a bad idea for Congress to do this?
Underlying this is the assumption that it is good if Americans consume less oil. That may be true, but let's analyze this. Why is it good? Some would say because it means consuming less foreign oil, and that is desirable because of the way oil is entangled in our foreign affairs (more on that shortly).
But if the foreign source of oil is the main issue, then it would also make sense to look at producing more oil at home; there are a number of places we know are very promising sites for pumping oil: the northern slope of Alaska, and off the coasts of Florida and California. But many of the same folks pushing this bill--as I say, to force automakers to make cars that currently don't sell--oppose those efforts, for reasons that, to my mind, aren't very strong. Yes, drilling oil does involve some disruption of the environment, but I simply don't find it believable that you can't go in, drill, build derricks and pumps and what all, and then have the local environment recover nicely. What, the deer and the antelope will be traumatized by the sight of an oil derrick? I don't believe it. "What about oil spills?" That's bad; but when oil is $100 a barrel, do you suppose the owners of that oil wouldn't rather get it safely to market than dump it out on a beach?
Back to the question of oil distorting our foreign policy. No question oil is a huge issue; but it would be, even if we didn't get a single drop of oil from outside our borders, because the rest of the world would certainly rely on that same oil, and what affects the rest of the world, affects us. So while it might indeed be a good idea if we drew less oil from places like Iraq or Venezuela, it wouldn't necessarily mean we'd have less reason to care about access to oil worldwide; and if we did care less, that might not be a good outcome. To the extent the U.S., and other nations, act to keep world trade humming, and to keep the prices of important commodities more or less stable, that is good for everyone. Isn't that rather obvious?
So, again, why is it important, to those who are backing this bill, that we use less oil?
For some, it's about global warming. I'm obviously not a scientist, but there's enough about all this hype to make any reasonable person skeptical of what is being fed us. And you have to separate out the issues. First: is there such a thing as global warming? Sure seems so; okay, say there is. Second: what is the human responsibility for this? That is the big question, that I do not believe has been adequately addressed. But even if you grant that one, you still have this next set of questions, that really get ignored: How significant will the consequences be of said warming; what can we reasonably do about it; what will sad measures against global warming cost in money, resources generally, trade-offs, social consequences, and in what will be left undone if we make this our main focus?
And finally, given all the possible environmental problems we might choose to invest lots of political energy, lots of money, and lots of social change into, is global warming the one that wins the prize (as opposed to providing clean drinking water, eradicating malaria or hunger, etc.)? People a lot smarter than I am are all over the map when it comes to the actual, foreseeable consequences of the warming supposedly underway: will sea levels rise a small or large amount? That really makes a big difference, doesn't it?
And don't assume all the effects of global warming are bad: there are many good consequences, and you have to weigh it all if you're going to make policy about such things. And it's rather naive to think this is how our esteemed solons in Congress go about this--don't kid yourself! And there remains good reason to question whether this warming is really a human-caused, or more fundamentally a natural, cyclical phenomenon. After all, no one disputes that there has been warming, as great or greater than what is supposed to be happening now, in centuries past; and absolutely no one claims the warming in the middle ages, or in ancient Roman times, was human-caused.
But, okay, to move this along, let's assume it is a good thing for the government to make Americans use less oil--because, at bottom, that's what this is all about. Is this proposal concerning the mileage cars get, the way to go?
Here's the thing: why is it even necessary for Congress to do anything? The automakers are already able to make such cars and they do; why don't they make more? There's only one reason...people don't buy them! Either because they cost more (the hybrid cars that are likely to proliferate as a result of this can cost several thousand dollars more); and if they require extra batteries, or have less power, then there are other trade-offs too; higher-mileage cars are not as big, they have less power, and they are not as safe--or at least, so many people believe.
Let's be clear: behind this is a moralism that says it's bad for people to drive big, gas-guzzling cars. They "should" drive smaller cars, drive them shorter distances, and less often. Maybe they shouldn't drive at all, they should walk, or ride bikes, or ride buses and trains.
Now, of course, I'm in the morality business, so I'm not against a moral argument per se. But I do think such moral claims need to be supported, otherwise it's a cheap sentiment, and I like my cheap sentiments better than yours.
This moralism argues that we're bad because we--Americans, and/or people who live this post-industrial lifestyle--use "too much" energy, we're thoughtless, we're using it all up, we're hurting the environment, we're hurting the future, we don't need it, we could live better, etc.
Well, I don't know how much is "too much"; depends on the alternative. What we do know is that we have a very advanced, very prosperous society, and it runs on energy. Energy isn't just "consumed," it's used--to do things, all manner of things, from exalted to debased, important to trivial. God knows what the optimum is, and how we might reshape things to get there; but the rest of us use our best judgments, and collectively, we are where we are. If, for example, we all washed our clothes by hand, and dried them on clotheslines, that would save a lot of energy. Whether that would be "better" in the broad measure? I don't know. We do know that all the energy we use serves to produce things, move things and people and information around at remarkable speeds, and all that brings great benefits that we take for granted.
Yes, oil is finite, but it also happens to be extremely useful. As of now, it happens to be about the best fuel we have, all things considered. Every means of generating energy has pros and cons; oil is widely used for the obvious reason that it has the most pros and fewest cons. If we can do the same with grass and hay, or with wood chips, or corn, swell; but for the present, these bio-fuels are in use only because of a huge, government "thumb on the scale." And I have too little confidence in politicians to think they are getting that right. Meanwhile, thanks to the government promoting corn for ethanol, corn prices are climbing, and that affects food prices.
Of course oil consumption affects the environment; but again, what is the alternative? Coal? Nuclear? Solar? Wind? Incinerating garbage? Exxon and BP and the rest all are happy to make money, and so do other people with money to invest. They'll make solar work, if it can, because they want to sell it to you. Why haven't they? Maybe because it just...doesn't...work; at least, not yet.
Meanwhile, left out of this is the bigger-picture alternative. Would humanity be better off with less advancement? Fewer appliances? Less travel? Less electricity? All of this has mixed consequences: the Internet can both save lives and destroy them. That's Original Sin and free will. Till we get rid of one or both of those factors, it'll always be "a mixed bag." But really, does anyone dispute that overall, we live better, live longer, overcome disease and illness and suffering far better, as a result?
Yes, there is some optimal way to live, an optimal use of technology, energy, an optimal commute to work, an optimal amount of usage of fuel and so forth. But I don't happen to know what it is for myself, let alone for you. The marketplace is an imperfect instrument of regulating such matters, and yes, you do need to monitor the marketplace, regulate it, and occasionally, intervene, but in general, I trust it more, because it's the cumulative action of lots of individual decisions and judgments, with greater freedom and rationalism, than the alternatives, certainly the politicians.