Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cars Move Forward in News Hole

Yesterday, while the news media was so obsessive in covering the lack of action on the U.S. government debt ceiling that even news junkies were starting to zone out, the White House took advantage of the news hole to release new efficiency standards for automobiles. This is an action that is far more consequential than anything than happened yesterday in Washington on budgetary and financial matters, because it sets a 14-year goal to double the average fuel efficiency of cars. The White House estimates this will save consumers $1.7 trillion during that period, and of course, the savings are higher going forward as more older cars are replaced by electric cars. This estimate is based on assumptions about how far people drive, how rapidly they replace their cars, and the price of oil, but never mind that: you end up saving more in total if you skip some trips and wait a few extra years before you replace your old car. Of course, the higher oil prices go, the more fuel efficiency matters. The point is that the country can save a fortune in energy imports just by moving forward on automobile technology, and it’s a progression that’s absolutely necessary to return the U.S. economy to an even keel. One hopes that it won’t really have to take 14 years to get there, but if so, it is better to start now.

A quick look at the amount of money at stake, remembering that nearly half of U.S. imports are energy, shows that this is a bigger deal than the fiscal strategy negotiations going on in Congress. It puts that conversation in a different light: the federal budget is such a difficult problem only because most of the solutions have been taken off the table. Of course, fuel efficiency is not just about money. The carbon dioxide emissions that are involved are a matter of concern in their own right, all the more so this year with the North Pole at risk of melting out.

Positioning this announcement in the news hole, even if that happened by accident, worked well politically. The right-wing political strategists were too preoccupied with their dream of a balanced budget amendment to offer even a feeble push back on the subject of cars. By the time they get around to it, it will be too late. With the policy already in place, they will be trying to take away people’s fuel-efficient cars. With gasoline prices likely to exceed $10/gallon by 2025, drivers won’t give up the promise of fuel efficiency so easily.