Federal Energy Policy in Microcosm
As a resident of the Los Angeles area, I’m accustomed to the petty indignities of big government. In a number of local communities, I can’t get a plastic bag from a grocery store and remain on the right side of the law. In the bedroom community of Calabasas (where I used to live), lighting up a cigarette is illegal virtually everywhere. There was even a small uproar earlier this year when it looked like L.A. was green-lighting $1,000 fines for playing football on the beach (of course that was the one that actually got the public incensed).
Traveling in South Florida last week, I encountered a new one: jam-packed parking lots where the only open spaces (and yes, they were virtually always open) were set aside for electric cars. In an instance of federalism working in exactly the opposite fashion it should — bad state and local ideas trickling up to Washington — it looks like the Capitol is about to get a taste of similar medicine. From National Journal:
Both the House and Senate approved plans to install public charging stations for electric vehicles earlier this month, and President Barack Obama signed those laws late last week. But in conversations with more than a dozen relevant Capitol Hill offices, the Alley could only track down one staffer with an electric car.
The phenomenon — whether in Miami, Capitol Hill, or anywhere else in the nation — is always the same: No one’s buying what the government’s selling. A better parking spot, a charging station, and a guest pass to the HOV lanes aren’t enough to convince the average American consumer to sacrifice quality, reliability, and safety.
This, I think, is the most telling part of the NJ piece:
Though few staffers currently drive electric cars, the sponsors of the legislation hope the stations will act as incentive for staffers considering purchasing one. There are only about 55,000 electric vehicles on the road, according to a CBS projection, which falls well short of Obama’s goals to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.
Count me skeptical of the incentive argument. The proponents of electric cars think they have a chicken and egg problem on their hands: no one will buy electric cars if there aren’t widespread charging stations, but no one will build the charging stations if there aren’t widespread electric cars. There’s an oft-unacknowledged parallel with the infrastructure, of course: conventional vehicles require gasoline, but you don’t see government having to mandate the creation of your local service station. It turns out that when people actually want a good, the logistics normally sort themselves out.
The problem isn’t that the product creates a chicken and egg dilemma. If we stay with this metaphor, the problem is that the consumer is a vegan. No matter how you present the product, they’re just not interested. When we start realizing this — and applying the principle writ large — we’ll save billions in taxpayer dollars, unravel the green crony capitalism represented by firms like Solyndra, and get our energy economy back on track.