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Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2001 / 8 Shevat, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

No sense of proportion -- MATHEMATICIANS use the term "rational numbers" for numbers that can form a ratio. By this definition, there is a lot of irrationality in California, where many people seem incapable of forming a ratio or proportion between different things.

California's electricity crisis is a result of years of refusing to have any sense of proportion between the desirability of environmental goals and the desirability of having electricity. Yet apparently the state's politicians have learned nothing from any of this.

Having provoked an electricity crisis and a financial crisis by imposing impossible conditions on public utilities, the California government is now imposing similarly irrational conditions on the automobile industry by requiring them to produce a certain quota of electric cars for sale in the state, as a precondition to their selling any other cars in California.

The purpose of the electric cars is to reduce the air pollution created by cars that burn gasoline. Obviously, no one is in favor of polluted air, but the question is whether the desirable goal of reducing pollution is to be pursued in utter disregard of other desirable things.

Electric cars may be fun at amusement parks, where they don't have to go very far or very fast. But if the consuming public wanted electric cars for regular use, Detroit would be manufacturing them by the millions. Only people infatuated with their own wonderful specialness would think that their job is to coerce both the manufacturers and the consuming public into something that neither of them wants.

California seems to have more than its fair share of self-infatuated people proclaiming utopian notions. Worse yet, such people are indulged by the media, the political system and the courts, while the enormous costs they create are quietly loaded onto unsuspecting consumers and taxpayers.

Somebody is going to have to pay for these electric cars that the public does not want. State agencies can buy some of them with the taxpayers' money. Some private individuals and organizations may be subjected to pressure from the state government to buy them. And some electric cars may just sit on dealers' lots or in storage, gathering dust. But they are still all going to have to be paid for by somebody because there is no free lunch.

Maybe those who imposed these new requirements think that the automobile companies can be forced to absorb the losses. Imposing costs on people out of state is a ploy that has been tried before with electricity. But apparently some people never learn.

Nothing is easier than glib enthusiasm for the benefits of electric cars -- and some of those benefits may even be real. But there is still the need to have a sense of proportion, because there are other benefits that will have to be sacrificed and other costs that will have to be paid.

Electric automobile engines are not powerful enough to move full-size cars at any reasonable speed, so that means people have to drive around in flimsy vehicles that can easily become death traps in an accident. Make no mistake about it, air pollution increases the incidence of fatal diseases. But will more people die from that than from traffic deaths in flimsy cars?

People who are crusading for electric cars are not interested in that ratio.

Cars running on electricity may create no air pollution themselves, but the electricity has to come from somewhere to charge and re-charge the batteries that run these cars. What difference does it make if the car itself creates no pollution but the pollution occurs at an electric power plant, miles away, that is the ultimate source of the energy that moves the car?

Why doesn't the public want to buy electric cars? Because in real life you have to be able to get where you want to go, in some reasonable time, whether or not your destination is within the narrow range of an electric car's batteries. And you want to be able to turn around and come back when you are ready, not have to wait for hours to recharge your batteries for the return trip.

You may not get there at all if you are oozing down a highway in a fragile little vehicle that is out of sync with the fast-moving heavy traffic around you. But none of this matters to people who are not in the habit of weighing one thing against another. Nor do such people want to allow other people to weigh one thing against another for themselves, rather than have their choices dictated from on high. No sense of proportion.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate