Tag: automakers

Gingrich & Woolsey on Energy

The other day, The Wall Street Journal provided a public service by lambasting Newt Gingrich for his absurd speech to the ethanol lobby in Des Moines last month (money line:  ”Obviously big urban newspapers want to kill it because it’s working, and you wonder, ‘What are their values?’”).  Today, Gingrich and fellow ethanol-maven James Woolsey struck back in those very same pages.  In doing so, Gingrich provided yet more evidence that he’s intellectually unfit for office.

“It is in this country’s long-term best interest,” he said, ”to stop the flow of $1 billion a day overseas.”  Really?  So money sent overseas is gone forever.  News to me.  The only thing you can buy with dollars earned from oil sales to the U.S. is to buy things denominated in dollars or to exchange them so that someone else can.  And we sell a lot of stuff to foreigners that are denominated in dollars (treasury bills for one) and that money comes right back to the good old U.S. of A.

But put that aside.  If Gingrich really believes this, then why not just ban all imports all together?  Is that what the GOP is about these days - rank gooberism on trade?

And one other thing; the U.S. does not spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil.  It spends about half that; $530 million a day (in 2009 anyway).

“[I] co-produced a movie with my wife, Callista, ‘We Have the Power,’ that argued for an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy which would maximize all forms of domestic energy production.”  Apparently, being a pol means that one doesn’t have to pick and choose between investments a, b, or c.  We’ll just mandate everyone invest in everything that can attract a lobbyist. 
When you hear this stuff about an ”all of the above” energy strategy, what you’re hearing is a complaint that the Democrats aren’t subsidizing enough of the energy industry.  They are too tight-fisted with the public purse.  They are not ambitious enough in their planning.  And while Republicans bang the table for more, more, and more handouts to private corporations, liberals like Amory Lovins (prominent left-of-center energy guru) and Carl Pope (former head of the Sierra Club) call for zeroing out everyone’s subsidies and leaving the energy market the heck alone (at least when it comes to this matter).  It’s a mad, mad world.
 
“Nevertheless,” says Gingrich, ”the Journal attempts to equate my career-long commitment to increased American energy production with the anti-energy agenda of President Obama. This is a laughable charge, especially considering I have been one of the most vocal opponents of the president’s energy policies since he took office.”  Perhaps, but on this matter, Gingrich is attacking the administration from the Left.  
 
Even more amusing was James Woolsey’s lecture to the editorial board over what it means to be a conservative.   “We could not help wondering,” he asked along with his co-author, Gal Luft, ”why the Journal, despite its commitment to free enterprise, chose to attack Newt Gingrich for his call to open vehicles to fuel competition, which would cost auto makers under $100 per new car.”  Well Jim, a commitment to free enterprise is a commitment to allow enterprises to be free to produce whatever they want.  Of course, if Woolsey had read Gingrich’s speech to the ethanol lobby, he would not need to wonder - it’s about their sick, twisted values.
 
Nonetheless, Woolsey claims that such a mandate ”is perfectly in line with conservative economic principles.”  That may be true given what conservatives believe about economics.  But it’s not consistent with a principled support for a free market.
 
Finally, “Challenging Mr. Gingrich’s conservative bona fides based on his support for breaking oil’s virtual monopoly over transportation fuel is not only myopic but also the best gift the Journal can give OPEC.”  But … oil dominates the transportation market because it is a heck of a lot cheaper than any other fuel.  If it weren’t so much cheaper than ethanol, then we would have no need for such massive subsidies for the same.  The same goes for electric cars.  If and when that changes, oil’s “monopoly” will crumble.  Until then, taking oil out of transportation markets simply takes cheap fuel out of transportation markets.  It would be fun to watch a Gingrich/Woolsey ticket run on that.

President Obama Represents UAW Rather Than U.S. in Korea Trade Talks

This has been a tough month so far for President Obama and his policies.

After the “shellacking” that he, his party, and his domestic policies suffered at the hands of American voters last week, his international economic policies were no more popular among his counterparts at the G20 summit this week in Seoul, South Korea.

Even the sympathetic editors at the New York Times declared in a front-page (print edition) headline this morning: “Obama’s Economic View Is Rejected on World Stage: China, Britain and Germany Challenge U.S.—Trade Talks with Seoul Fail, Too.”

The other leaders at the summit were right to reject the president’s demands that China be singled out for its currency policies, as I’ve written before, and the South Korean government was right to reject his demands for changes in the U.S.-Korea trade agreement that has been waiting for more than three years for congressional approval.

Although not perfect, the U.S.-Korea agreement is a solid step forward. As my Cato colleague Doug Bandow wrote in a recent study, the agreement would sharply reduce trade barriers between our two nations while deepening our commercial and security ties with a key democratic ally in the Asian Pacific.

The Koreans rightly refused to substantially alter the sections of the agreement relating to automobiles. The agreement would eliminate tariffs on all automobile trade between the two countries. Ford, Chrysler, and the United Auto Workers union oppose the deal, claiming that it does not address non-tariff barriers that allegedly hinder U.S. exports to the Korean market.

As I posted in this space a few days ago, there are perfectly normal market reasons why Americans buy a lot more Korean cars than vice versa. The real agenda of Ford, Chrysler, and the UAW is not to gain greater access to the Korean market, but to prevent any greater access of their Korean competitors to the U.S. market.

The talks in Seoul this week reportedly foundered on the specific U.S. demand that Korea relax its emission and mileage standards so that U.S. automakers can more easily modify their cars for the Korean market. How ironic. It has become part of the Democratic mantra on trade that agreements must strengthen the environmental and labor standards of our trading partners. Yet here U.S. negotiators were strong-arming the Korean government to weaken its own standards while the Obama administration seeks to impose higher mileage and emission standards on cars sold in the United States.

There is still time to save the U.S.-Korea agreement and to present it to the potentially more trade-friendly Congress that will convene in January. But for now, President Obama has chosen to serve the narrow interests of two domestic automakers and their union rather than the overall economic and strategic interests of the American people.

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Federal Bailout of GM Still Horribly Wrong

Our friends at The Economist magazine usually talk good sense about free trade and free markets, which makes their retrospective endorsement of the government bailout of General Motors all the more disappointing.

In a leader in the current issue, the editors write that critics of the bailout (count Cato scholars among them) owe President Obama an apology. “His takeover of GM could have gone horribly wrong, but it has not,” they opine.

The Economist argues that, in contrast to state coddling of industries in, say, France, President Obama has driven a hard bargain by requiring GM to fire top management, cut jobs, close plants, and reduce its brand names. The magazine grants that the president’s labor-union allies won special concessions that came at the expense of bondholders, but “by and large Mr. Obama has not used his stakes in GM and Chrysler for political ends.”

First, it’s a pretty low bar to say an intervention was right because it did not go horribly wrong. The editors then too quickly brush over the horrible injustice of stiffing the taxpayers of Indiana and others who bought GM bonds and should have been in line ahead of the more politically connected United Auto Workers union.

To curry favor with organized labor, President Obama put $50 billion of taxpayer resources at risk. A post-bankruptcy GM turned a profit last quarter, along with most other automakers, but it is doubtful its anticipated IPO in the next few months will raise anything like the $80 billion or more needed to return the “investment” to taxpayers.

On top of that, the bailout of GM went far beyond any valid power granted to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution, and it blatantly favored two companies over a multitude of others in the very competitive automobile market.

Remind me again who owes whom an apology?

So Much for Making Money on the Bailout

Reports the Washington Post:

The federal government is unlikely to recoup all of the billions of dollars that it has invested in General Motors and Chrysler, according to a new congressional oversight report assessing the automakers’ rescue.

The report said that a $5.4 billion portion of the $10.5 billion owed by Chrysler is “highly unlikely” to be repaid, while full recovery of the $50 billion sunk into GM would require the company’s stock to reach unprecedented heights.

“Although taxpayers may recover some portion of their investment in Chrysler and GM, it is unlikely they will recover the entire amount,” according to the report, which is scheduled to be released Wednesday.

Well, it’s only money.  And with the taxpayers facing more than $100 trillion worth of unfunded liabilities, what’s a few more wasted dollars?!

Intervention Begets Intervention, Which Begets…

The logic in Washington is ineluctable.  If government provides money, then it needs to impose regulations.  If the government takes ownership, then it must provide management.

Bail out the banks.  Set bankers’ salaries.  Bail out the insurers.  Decide on corporate bonuses.

And if the government takes over the automakers, then it should run the automakers.  That, of course, means deciding who can be dealers. 

Reports the Washington Post:

Now that the Obama administration has spent billions of dollars on the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, Congress is considering making its first major management decision at the automakers.

Under legislation that has rapidly gained support, GM and Chrysler would have to reinstate more than 2,000 dealerships that the companies had slated for closure.

The automakers say the ranks of their dealers must be thinned in order to match the fallen demand for cars. But some of the rejected dealers and their Capitol Hill supporters argue that the process of selecting dealerships for closure was arbitrary and went too far.

Since federal money has been used to sustain the automakers, they say Congress has an obligation to intervene.

At a gathering of dozens of dealers who came to Capitol Hill yesterday to lobby their representatives, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and several other congressmen spoke in support of the dealers. More than 240 House members have signed onto the bill, supporters said.

“We are going to stand with them for as long as it takes,” Hoyer told an approving crowd.

What is next?  Congress deciding the prices that should be charged for autos?  The accessories to be offered?  The colors cars should be painted?

I have no idea who should or should not be an auto dealer.  But I do know that it is a decision which should not be made in Washington, D.C.

Obama’s Fuel-Economy Standards

If you like driving a big car or SUV, the good news about Obama’s new fuel-economy standards is that they won’t dictate what kind of car you will be able to buy in the future. If you want to buy a 15-mpg SUV, Detroit (or Aichi or Wolfsburg) will be free to make and sell you one.

The bad news is that the standards may make your car more expensive. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are actually calculated as the mean of gallons per mile, not miles per gallon. So, as of 2016, for every 15-mpg model made by an auto maker, that company will have to make five models of cars that can go 50 mpg in order for its fleet to meet Obama’s new target. Since bringing each new model to market can cost billions of dollars, if there are not enough people who want to buy those fuel-efficient cars to cover their design costs, the company will have to add a share of those costs to your SUV.

If you want to save energy, the good news is that Obama’s standards are more stringent than those in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 – but not by much. While the 2007 law required new car fleets to average 35 mpg by 2020, Obama’s standard requires fleets to average 35.5 mpg by 2016.

The bad news is that nothing in Obama’s standard guarantees that they will actually save energy. The rule only requires that the mean fuel economy of all models, not all cars, made by a manufacturer meet the 35.5 mpg standard. Not much energy will be saved if gas guzzlers sell well and hybrids don’t.

If gas prices go up, people will buy the fuel-efficient models that auto makers are forced to make – but that would have happened anyway. If gas stays cheap, people will continue to buy fuel-inefficient cars (tempered only by having to pay extra to cover the start-up costs of models no one wants). If you believe that saving energy or reducing dependence on foreign oil is important, then you should prefer a stronger form incentive over this mandate.

The worst-cast scenario is that the new standards increase the cost of buying new cars but don’t save any energy (except to the extent that a few people can’t afford to own a car at all). The best-case scenario is that Obama’s standards result in future auto fleets that are not much different from what a free market would have produced. Considering that Honda and Toyota are now in a price war over their Insight vs. the third-generation Prius, that may be closer to the actual outcome.

The good news is that auto makers readily acquiesced to this standard, partly because they feared something worse but partly because they didn’t think it would cost much. The Obama administration estimates that the added cost of the new standard will be $1,300 per car, but that (if gasoline remains $3 per gallon) it will save drivers $500 per year. That means it could pay for itself in the long run – but only if people actually do buy more fuel-efficient cars.

The debate over the standard reminds me of the debate after Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate air quality in 1970. One faction favored of technical solutions to pollution, such as catalytic converters. The other faction argued for behavioral tools aimed at getting people to drive less.

Today, we know the behavioral solutions were a complete failure. Although many cities imposed urban-growth boundaries, built light rail, and implemented various disincentives to driving, not one can say they have reduced per-capita driving by even 1 percent.

On the other hand, the technical solutions were highly successful. Though we drive nearly three times as many miles as in 1970, total automotive air pollution has declined more than 50 percent.

There was a third faction in 1970 whose voice was almost inaudible: economists who argued that incentives would clean the air better than mandates. The mandates that were put in place only acted on new cars, and it took more than a decade (and now takes almost two decades) to turn over the American auto fleet. Properly designed incentives could have acted on all cars and cleaned the air much faster (by, for example, giving people a choice between retrofitting their cars or paying a pollution fee that was dedicated to cleaning up pollution elsewhere).

The lesson libertarians take from this is that incentives are better than mandates. But the point I like to make is that, though incentives might work better than mandates, technical solutions work far better than behavioral ones.

Despite the past failure of behavioral tools, there is a strong movement in the administration and Congress today for more behavioral controls aimed at reducing driving to save energy and greenhouse gas emissions. These behavioral tools will be expensive, they will have costly unintended consequences, and in the end they will do little to protect the environment.

I remain unpersuaded that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But if there is a political need to do so, we should at least do it in ways that cost little and provide other benefits that will help cover those costs. McKinsey & Company estimates that the United States can meet the most stringent greenhouse gas targets by investing in programs that cost no more than $50 per ton of greenhouse gas abatements. More fuel-efficient cars meet this test, says McKinsey, and will also reduce the emissions of other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides.

Meanwhile, light rail, growth boundaries, and other behavioral tools, if they save energy and reduce greenhouse gases at all, will only do so at costs of tens of thousands of dollars per ton. Though I am far from thrilled about Obama’s new policy, at least it reminds us that, for a relatively low cost, we can significantly reduce energy consumption and various pollution emissions without trying to socially engineer American lifestyles.