‘The time is right!’ … to hand them billions

In the early 1870s, Thomas Alva Edison declared “The time was right” to introduce the stock ticker and the printing telegraph.

It was. Americans, grasping the benefits of his inventions and finding them affordable in relation to those benefits, willingly purchased Mr. Edison’s inventions; he and the capitalists who invested in the enterprise grew rich.

As the 1870s rolled on, Mr. Edison declared “the time was right” to offer Americans the telephone, the phonograph, and the incandescent electric light bulb. By 1888, he had decided “the time was right” to offer Americans the motion picture camera and projector.

He was usually right. Whole industries grew up around his inventions.

Now, 120 years later, Nissan president and CEO Carlos Ghosn declared on Nov. 16, 2009 “The time is right for electric cars,” as top executives with more than a dozen companies, including the Nissan Motor Co., Fedex Corp., electric utility PG&E Corp. and battery developers A123 Systems Inc. and Johnson Controls-Saft announced the formation of an “Electrification Coalition to lay the groundwork for millions of electric cars to reach U.S. highways.”

Mr. Ghosn said the auto industry was working quickly to develop zero-emissions cars in response to concerns about oil security, tighter emissions requirements in the United States and elsewhere and a public thirst for alternative vehicles not tied to petroleum.

Ghosn said the world market of 600 million vehicles is expected to expand to 2.5 billion vehicles in 2050. The group envisions a network of electric vehicles in six to eight cities in the short term and an expansion across the country, making 75 percent of all vehicle miles traveled powered by electricity by 2040.

“There’s no pie-in-the-sky here,” intoned Frederick W. Smith, FedEx’s chairman, president and CEO. “It’s simply a matter of organization, a matter of will and a matter of execution.”

Well … and that small matter of getting Congress to hand them a couple hundred billion dollars seized from taxpayers against their will, of course.

Participants “acknowledged that the proposals would be expensive and would require a major commitment from Congress,” The Associated Press reports. “The group’s blueprint would cost more than $120 billion over eight years and promote tax credits for the installation of advanced batteries, loan guarantees for the retooling of plants, and tax credits for public charging stations and home charging equipment.”

Wow.

“Ultimately the consumer will make the judgment about where this country goes, but from the standpoint of public policy we can set the stage for it,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who joined the group for its announcement.

Actually, electric, steam, and other types of highway motive power were widely tried 120 years ago. “The consumer” chose gasoline. And if “the consumer” should again pass judgment that he doesn’t want to drive around in flimsy little golf-cart vehicles with limited range, the manufacture of batteries for which may turn out to be an environmental nightmare … Messrs. Ghosn, Smith, and company will pay the taxpayers back?

“But we’re running out of fossil fuels!” proponents will shriek.

A) No we’re not. We’re not drilling all our available oil by a long shot; we’ve got enough coal to last centuries; increased coal use would free up oil for highway use, and in a last resort turning coal into liquid fuel is perfectly do-able. Besides, b) we were also “running out of whale oil” in 1857. Lo and behold, free-market entrepreneurs invented and developed the petroleum industry over the next 50 years, without a dime of government subsidies. The whales survived.

“But evil foreigners can cut off our oil supply at any time!”

Really? OPEC can’t even keep its members in line on price and production quotas. How long would the king of Arabia — or any conceivable claimant — keep his throne if he stopped selling oil? And if he stopped selling only to us, how would he stop his primary customers from turning around and re-selling to us?

Besides, America is still a major oil producer, sitting on the world’s largest known reserves unlike, say … Japan in 1941.

And finally: Who says electric cars don’t use fossil fuels? When you plug them in, their batteries get recharged by sucking power that moves over transmission lines from … power plants. Those power plants, in the foreseeable real world, run on coal, nuclear power, or natural gas. Which kind do the “greens” want us to build lots more of?

Here’s a different idea: Let Nissan Motor Co., Fedex, PG&E, A123 Systems, and Johnson Controls-Saft gather investment capital on the private market by convincing would-be investors this scheme will eventually turn a big profit WITHOUT a tax subsidy. The investors put in their money by buying stocks and bonds and take the risk; when the whole things pays off they make healthy profits.

What? They don’t want to do it that way? Because they can’t actually show any likelihood of big profits without the big taxpayer subsidies?

Hmm.

Did Thomas Alva Edison promise to develop the telephone, the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb … as soon as Congress handed him a few billion in tax money to “set up a test network in six to eight cities”?

In his recent book, “Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution,” historian Thomas J. DiLorenzo discusses the Hamiltonian vision of a strong central government directing the nation’s economy in place of the supposedly “inefficient, haphazard” free market — and the disasters to which such meddling by “we-know-better” government experts give rise.

Henry Clay, for instance, though generally regarded as a “great statesman,” adopted Hamilton’s belief in the supposed need for a powerful national government and sought federal funding for government-financed canals, railroads, and other “infrastructure investments.”

Clay’s theory was that the free market would not make such investments. But professor DiLorenzo shows how such government projects almost invariably turned into costly failures that lined the pockets of the few (can you say “Colorado oil shale?”) while devouring huge amounts of public funds.

Entrepreneurs working in the free market, on the other hand — see James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad — demonstrated they could indeed gather capital and make profits building roads, railroads, and other projects without Congressional “lubrication.”

“Hamilton’s foolish ideas about economics and government power reign supreme in the United States today,” reports George C. Leef, director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, in his recent review of professor DiLorenzo’s book.

“Hamilton’s curse costs us dearly. … The economy is far less prosperous than it would be if it weren’t for the tremendous diversion of resources into political boondoggles instead of productive enterprises.”

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