Politics is the art of the possible. In other words, it’s the art of manipulating expectations. In other other words, Barack Obama didn’t achieve the highest office in the land by doing things. He became president by promising to do things. And now that he’s actually got to do stuff, Obama must resort to the politician’s best weapon in their endless fight to reconcile expectations and reality (i.e., special interests): loopholes. Those exquisite exceptions that allow those supposedly affected by a piece of legislation to avoid the law’s intent—to the point where you wonder why anyone bothered to write it in the first place. The answer to that question is obvious: so that the politicians who crafted the law could be seen to be doing something that meets with public approval. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new CAFE standards.
Let me cut to the chase: the feds could mandate a 100 mpg fleet-wide corporate average fleet economy (CAFE) standard and the carmakers would meet it. All they’d have to do is do whatever they have to do to not do it while appearing like they’ve either done it or gave it a damn good try, then pay the damn fine (if necessary), pass on the cost to their consumers and get on with it. Again.
Which means that today’s pre-announcement announcement that the federal government will eventually adopt California’s CAFE standards—42 mpg for cars, 26.2 mpg for trucks by 2016—is meaningless. You know, in the real world. In the political sphere, it will be a major victory for environmentalists, supporters of the president, Chrysler and GM.
Yes, there is that. The president will soon have new CAFE standards AND control of two car companies that can build the vehicles that conform to those standards. I mean, they’ll have to do that, right? Otherwise, a taxpayer-funded automaker may have to pay a large penalty to the taxpayers, using taxpayer’s money, for failing to meet a standard set by the government who owns them (the carmakers, not the taxpayers).
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those people who worries that Chrysler and GM will be forced to build Nancy Pelosi-mobiles. I’m one of those who knows it.
Ah ha! But you just said the automakers won’t meet the standards! They’ll only pretend to. Yes, and to pretend to do it, they’ll build the Volt, an electric minivan or suchlike and act like they’re building the vehicles that will right the sunked ship, meet or exceed all federal regulations, save the planet and reduce our dependency on foreign oil. Meanwhile, they’ll sell other things.
Or not. I mean, what difference does it make? Both car companies are practically 501c3 non-profit charities as it is. Any business that owes its existence to subsidies, noblesse oblige and tax credits is not going to spend too much time worrying about little things like return on investment and long-term profitability. Why should they?
Sorry. I got distracted. The meat of the matter: the new CAFE standards go hand-in-glove with the $100 billion or so doled out (literally) to Chrysler and GM; a “fresh start” for a “clean future” with “green jobs” using “American ingenuity” and “innovative technology.”
It wasn’t planned that way. It just happened. Like I said, it’s the art of the possible: drawing from the temper of the times, tapping into a farrago of common hopes, creating a palatable policy platform for those who need to stay on message. And for those who need to build cars? “Flexibility.” Automotive News [sub]:
The proposal to run from 2012-2016 would maintain a single national standard for fuel economy and give automakers flexibility for meeting it, people with knowledge of the plan said.
The same would apply to anyone with knowledge of any government plan. This is not pure cynicism. This is cynicism based on historical precedent. Lest we forget, the last SUV boom was fueled by CAFE standards that allowed Chrysler to classify the PT Cruiser as a truck.
There is no reason to believe that the new CAFE regs will be any more stringently applied than existing laws, or if they are, that manufacturers will be any less likely to game the system to allow them to build the more profitable vehicles that people want to buy.
That said, again, this time ’round we’ll have two automobile manufacturers who will no longer care [that much] about building the vehicles that people want to buy. So they might NOT cheat. Which will screw it up for everyone else, Ford included.
Either that or they’ll force all automakers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles that will save the planet and reduce our dependency on foreign oil. Oh, and be just as safe as current cars and trucks. After all, there are no limits to human ingenuity.