Let Un­cle Sam drive

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Dis­re­gard Barack Obama’s rhetor­i­cal cot­ton candy about as­pir­ing to be trans­for­ma­tive. He is just an­other prac­ti­tioner of re­ac­tionary lib­er­al­ism and cham­pion of a govern­ment un­chas­tened by its mul­ti­ply­ing fail­ures.

The word “en­ti­tle­ments” was ab­sent from his nearly 7,000-word State of the Union ad­dress— a $183 mil­lion speech that me­an­dered for 61 min­utes as the nation’s debt grew $3 mil­lion a minute. He ex­horted lis­ten­ers to “win the fu­ture” by re­mem­ber­ing the past.

On May 10, 1869, at Promon­tory Sum­mit, in the Utah Ter­ri­tory, a golden spike was driven to cel­e­brate the join­ing of the Union Pa­cific and Cen­tral Pa­cific rail­roads. In the 1960s, the United States sent men to the moon. Obama said: To­day’s govern­ment should take more con­trol of the nation’s re­sources so it can do in­no­va­tive things akin to build­ing the transcontinental rail­road and ex­plor­ing space.

The nation heard: You should trust the govern­ment whose re­cent in­no­va­tions in­clude the ethanol de­ba­cle that, four days be­fore the State of the Union, the govern­ment ex­panded. And you should sur­ren­der more re­sources to the govern­ment whose re­cent in­no­va­tions in­clude the wild pro­lif­er­a­tion of sub­prime mort­gages.

Obama spoke to a nation limp­ing into a sixth year of de­clin­ing hous­ing prices (hous­ing ac­counts for about one-quar­ter of house­holds’ as­sets), with an ad­di­tional 10 to 20 per­cent de­cline likely. With 5 mil­lion house­holds at least two months’ delin­quent on their mort­gage pay­ments and 5.5 mil­lion house­holds with mort­gages at least 20 per­cent larger than the value of their houses, more hous­ing fore­clo­sures will prob­a­bly take place this year than the 1 mil­lion in 2010, when sales of newhomes hit a 47-year low. It is in­deed amaz­ing what in­no­va­tive govern­ment can ac­com­plish.

The day af­ter Obama told the nation that the key to pros­per­ity is cre­ativ­ity de­fined by this govern­ment and pro­pelled by more govern­ment spend­ing (“in­vest­ment”), the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice said that this year’s bud­get gap is widen­ing to $1.5 tril­lion, mak­ing the na­tional debt 70 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, up from 40 per­cent in 2008.

But Michi­gan’s Levin broth­ers re­main faith­ful to Oba­ma­nomics, which holds that pros­per­ity is just around the corner — if govern­ment spends more on in­no­va­tions it imag­ines. Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. San­der Levin have a com­bined 60 years of Capi­tol Hill ten­ure, and an in­no­va­tion. Like most lib­er­als’ new ideas, theirs is to make an old idea more ex­pen­sive. The day of the CBO’s dark fore­cast, the Levins said that the govern­ment should dou­ble the scope of its pro­gram to bribe peo­ple to buy a kind of car the govern­ment likes much more than do buy­ers of cars.

The govern­ment al­ready of­fers $7,500 tax in­cen­tives for peo­ple who buy elec­tric cars such as the $32,780 Nis­san Leaf and, more to the point, Gen­eral Mo­tors’ $41,000 Chevro­let Volt. As The Post’s Peter Whoriskey re­ported, these prices are “well above” those of “com­pa­ra­bly sized cars with gaso­line en­gines that can cost about $20,000.”

Obama’s goal of get­ting 1 mil­lion such cars on Amer­ica’s roads by 2015 can­not be met un­less in­no­va­tive govern­ment rigs the mar­ket. In­tro­duced in 2008, the $7,500 bribe was limited to the first 250,000 cars. Un­der Obama’s stim­u­lus, it was ex­panded to 200,000 per man­u­fac­turer. The Levins, ut­ter­ing lib­er­al­ism’s time­less ral­ly­ing cry (“More!”) want it to cover 500,000 per man­u­fac­turer.

The Levins’ ap­plied lib­er­al­ism is re­gres­sive be­cause it con­scripts all tax­pay­ers into sub­si­diz­ing a for­tu­nate few: As Whoriskey re­ported, the sub­sidy would flow to “early adopters” of a new kind of car, and they “gen­er­ally tend to be af­flu­ent.” But this is “all about eco­nomic and na­tional se­cu­rity,” says Rob­bie Di­a­mond, pres­i­dent of the Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion Coali­tion.

It rep­re­sents, among oth­ers, peo­ple who sell elec­tric­ity and re­lated prod­ucts and those who want to sell elec­tric cars. The coali­tion’s lead­ers in­clude Car­los Ghosn, Nis­san’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, and Jeff Im­melt, GE’s chief ex­ec­u­tive and (si­mul­ta­ne­ously) chair­man of Obama’s Coun­cil on Jobs and Com­pet­i­tive­ness.

Di­a­mond says that elec­tric cars will help pre­vent Amer­ica from be­ing “ hostage to one fuel source pro­duced in the world’s un­sta­ble and of­ten-hos­tile re­gions.” Amer­ica’s two largest sources of im­ported oil are Canada and Mex­ico. Both Levins op­pose tap­ping the large oil re­serves in Alaska’s Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge.

The Levins’ in­no­va­tion could cost $19 bil­lion over 10 years, but if it does, says San­der, “it means that the pro­gram worked.” So, a pro­gram “works” if it pays peo­ple enough to get them to do some­thing they oth­er­wise would con­sider ir­ra­tional — to buy some­thing so over­priced it would fail in an un­rigged mar­ket. If it “works,” the cry will be: “More!”


Pres­i­dent Obama greets con­gres­sional pages be­fore de­liv­er­ing the State of the Union ad­dress Tues­day.

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