Q. Now that our "green president" has begun his drive to clean up auto emissions, we will have another restraint on the ability of U.S. manufacturers to compete in a global industry. How can this possibly help?— Eric Nettere
Thank you, Eric, for your question, even though you didn't address it to me. (It's posted at the Times' site, posed to Tom Zeller, editor of the Green Inc. blog.)
Your question is very illuminating, not only about your attitudes, but about the attitudes of so many 20th century thinkers. It's right there in your question: "... we will have another restraint on the ability of U.S. automakers to compete..."
Have you noticed how well Priuses are selling?
Did you notice what $4 gas did to the value of Hummers?
Even if you're not there yet, a substantial part of the market wants more efficient vehicles. Companies that have noted this — not prodded by governments but driven by markets — are benefitting, not being restrained.
Just because U.S. automakers have fought — and continue to fight — every attempt to bring them into a more fuel-efficient present, doesn't mean that's what's best for them.
This is not to say Big Government should be in the business of telling industry what to build. Any conservative would say that that is anathema, and though I wouldn't indulge in the apoplexia, neither do I think that that is a good idea.
It is government's job to safeguard public health and the public interest. Traffic lights are a simple example of government imposition of safety rules. So are the rules that say you can't put melamine in baby food.
It would be great if the U.S. automakers had shown an ounce of vision and moved in these directions on their own, but when is the last time, Eric, that you would put "vision" and "U.S. automakers" in the same sentence?
These rules are not to punish or handicap the automakers; they're to protect us from the clear and present dangers posed by greenhouse gases.
Also, to say that such rules will put U.S. companies at a disadvantage assumes that other nations are not moving in the same directions — that their governments aren't expecting higher standards, that their consumers don't want more fuel-efficient cars.
Just to take one example, European countries began imposing more stringent fuel efficiency standards after the oil crisis of the '70s. Now European cars are far more fuel efficient. Lots of European automakers are doing well, relative to the U.S. companies.
And who would argue that less-efficient vehicles are in our future?
It's too late to be an early leader in fuel-efficiency, but it's not too late to grab part of what is sure to be an increasing market.