Monday, July 19, 2010

Default and battery


I think this discussion merits more visibility than just an addition to the comment thread on the post wherein I complained (also here) about the subsidization of battery manufacture in Michigan, so I am replying here. 

You wrote:
In a ideal world, government would not get involved in free enterprise. I'm no fan of picking winners and losers either. The invisible hand is far better at that.

But we don't live in a ideal world. Michigan has a strong interest in bringing jobs back to its economy, and encouraging new industries. The federal government has an interest in shifting us away from foreign oil.

If government did nothing, battery production and jobs would stay in Asia. A123 already has production facilities in China and Korea. The only reason they are now expanding in Michigan and Massachusetts is because tax breaks made it economically competitive. That is the unfortunate reality of the non-ideal global economy we live in.

If I understand you correctly, government should remain on the sidelines, do nothing to encourage development of the alternative energy industry or jobs. Am I representing your views correctly?

I am not a shill for corporatists, far from it. I'm simply someone who want [sic] to see us transition to electric vehicles as quickly as possible, and lithium-ion batteries are a technology that makes that possible.

Once it becomes a mass market, battery subsidies will not be required. But at this point government can play a role, can build some roads into the wilderness, can help promote the general welfare.

We are about to see explosive growth in the EV industry, and our elected officials want some of that growth to occur in the US. As much as I would prefer the purity of free markets, I can't fault them for that.
You approvingly refer to Adam Smith. Let me remind you of what that means:

From Book II, Chapter III of The Wealth Of Nations:

It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expence, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expence, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.
Book IV, Chapter I
We do not, however, reckon that trade disadvantageous which consists in the exchange of the hard-ware of England for the wines of France; and yet hard-ware is a very durable commodity, and were it not for this continual exportation, might too be accumulated for ages together, to the incredible augmentation of the pots and pans of the country. But it readily occurs that the number of such utensils is in every country necessarily limited by the use which there is for them; that it would be absurd to have more pots and pans than were necessary for cooking the victuals usually consumed there; and that if the quantity of victuals were to increase, the number of pots and pans would readily increase along with it, apart of the increased quantity of victuals being employed in purchasing them, or in maintaining an additional number of workman whose business it was to make them.
Book IV, Chapter II
By means of glasses, hotbeds, and hotwalls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine too can be made of them at about thirty times the expense for which at least equally good can be brought from foreign countries. Would it be a reasonable law to prohibit the importation of all foreign wines, merely to encourage the making of claret and burgundy in Scotland?
Book IV, Chapter VIII
It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interests has been so carefully attended to; and among this later class our merchants and manufactures have been by far the principal architects. In the mercantile regulations, which have been taken notice of in this chapter, the interest of our manufacturers has been most peculiarly attended to; and the interest, not so much of the consumers, as that of some other sets of producers, has been sacrificed to it.
So. If you misrepresent my views, it is only by not going far enough. I do indeed mean, "If it is less expensive to manufacture batteries in Asia, then that is exactly what should be encouraged."  Adam Smith agrees, and so should you if your objective is to rapidly increase market penetration of electric cars.

What you could be promoting to more effect is the manufacture of nuclear generating stations in order to "fuel" the many electric vehicles you see on the horizon. This could be done by petitioning the general government to get its regulatory house in order so that such plants may be constructed more quickly. (I suggest 'Nucleus' as a handle.)

Imagine the consumer anger if their new electric cars can only be charged on days matching the last number in their license plate - and certainly not at home. Imagine the objections of the Envirostatists if we have to build dozens of coal plants in short order. These are outcomes detrimental to the success of electric vehicles.

You mention that the general government wants to wean us from foreign oil. If this is true it represents nearly half-a-century of failed intervention and wasted treasure.

If this were true we'd be drilling in ANWR and off the coasts of Lake Michigan and Florida, and the regulations for extraction of natural gas from shale deposits would be far less onerous. Your faith in government is, to be charitable, misplaced.

Remember Jimmy Carter's Synfuels Corporation? Congress killed it in 1986 after it consumed several billion dollars in order to produce nothing. This wasteful agency lasted only (?) 6 years, but Carter's legacylation still costs us a billion a year in tax credits.

You appear to imagine that union labor in Michigan can contribute to your goal even though only "tax breaks made it economically competitive". In perpetuity? We already have more than sufficient evidence that this is not a realistic expectation.

You seem to understand that A123 has been involved with government in a dance of extortion and bribery wherein the moral questions are sufficiently, and intentionally, confused so as to excuse both parties from public approbation. This sleight is accomplished via the euphemism "public funding."

If Michigan actually has a "strong interest" in creating jobs, it should let the jobs be created. That is, it should pass right to work legislation, eliminate corporate income tax and cease picking loser after loser.  You might have at least a pragmatic point if a "winner" had ever been selected.  But there's no example.  Let's take subsidies for the film industry...  Sorry, I digress.

Charged against Michigan in the area of "encourag[ing] development of alternate energy," must be the twin debacles of ethanol (local and national bankruptcies abound, while we continue to apply devastating tariffs on Brazilian ethanol) and windmill manufacturing (which represents nothing not easily duplicated at lower cost by those pesky Asians).

So, in the case of batteries, I would like you to tell me how the short-sale of capital to Asian lenders can permanently improve domestic labor prospects. In other words, is borrowing from China to temporarily fund US jobs a good idea? If so, is the assertion that it is a good idea because these are "technology" jobs in a world where technologies are frequently outmoded? Please include your detailed thoughts on this Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysis when replying.

The non-ideal global economy could move closer to the ideal global economy if the government would cease to line the pockets of corporatists at the behest of their lobbyists.

So I, for one, do fault them for that.


Lithicus said...

You can quote chapter and verse of Mr. Smith all you like, but I don't hear you offering any solutions other than eliminating labor unions and corporate taxes. We had a country like that in the nineteenth century: one without a middle class.

Today we live in a representative democracy, and if our representatives don't grab every job and factory they can, using whatever tools they have, then they get fired. No Republican or Tea Partier would hesitate a second in blasting Granholm and other Democrats if that battery factory went to China. "Why didn't they do something?" the campaign ads would scream. There would be no discussion of Adam Smith.

That is the political world we live in, and I don't see you doing anything to change that. You're perfectly happy when your guy is in office, it's only when the opposition has power that it becomes a constitutional crisis.

Electric vehicle adoption will (unfortunately) be gradual enough not to strain the grid. This is a red herring. Cars charge overnight, during off-peak hours. Smart chargers turn on when demand is lowest. Utilities love baseload demand, they hate peak demand. EVs don't contribute to peak demand.

By the way, I've always been a proponent of nuclear energy, which didn't make me very popular in college during Three Mile Island. But as a physics major I knew the technology was safe, could be much safer, and fossil fuels were a dirty, limited resource. I knew CO2 was a trace gas, and humans are quite capable of increasing that trace sufficiently to alter climate. I see from your other posts you deny climate change. Maybe you can keep your head in the sand a few more years.

You condemn the attempt to wean us from foreign oil because it has "never worked". True, and one political party has helped ensure that outcome. So we have to just shrug our shoulders and wait for $6/gallon gas, is that your position? Then let the market suddenly develop a solution? Fortunately there are responsible members of society who try to head off disasters before they happen. You like to call that "picking winners" and insist it is doomed to failure. No solution, just doing nothing.

Carter tried to put us on track to solve the energy problem. But when Reagan came into office, he ripped those solar panels off the White House roof and never looked back. No solution, just doing nothing.

When Bush the Dumber took office, that marked the end of the few electric vehicles on the road. GM crushed their EV1 and went back to building big fat SUVs. Republicans prevailed again, ignoring the problem, hushing the doomsayers, feeding the childish electorate cotton candy instead of vegetables. No solution, just doing nothing.

You reference the Mackinac Center. This so-called "think tank" is a shill for corporations, to modify your phrase. It is staffed by right-wing Republicans and social conservatives, funded by oil companies and other corporations who benefit from the status quo. The last thing they want is an electric vehicle industy disrupting their profits.

These people love free markets when "hands-off" means maintaining the tax breaks and political advantage their corporate masters currently enjoy. Preserving the tax codes and policies their lobbists helped write. All this high-minded talk about Adam Smith is a thin veil covering the ugly face of greed and political advantage. Not free enterprise, merely preservation of power. No solution, just doing nothing.

Hershblogger said...

If you don't like Mr. Smith's ideas, perhaps you should refrain from pretending you do like them.

You are aware I support the tea party and you call me a Republican, despite evidence to the contrary. You can also see that I would not blast Granholm for "letting" the battery factory go where Adam Smith says it should. Nonetheless, you say, "No Republican or Tea Partier would hesitate a second in blasting Granholm and other Democrats if that battery factory went to China." Wrong.

I do not condemn the attempt to reduce dependence on foreign oil, and I show how that dependence is fostered by Democrat policies.

You say, "Fortunately there are responsible members of society who try to head off disasters before they happen." Your problem is that you confuse the dictates of public opinion with the voice of individual conscience.

Your mantra is, "No solution, just doing nothing." Well, I prefer that to, "No solution, just doing something."

Hershblogger said...


"explosive growth in the EV industry"


"gradual enough not to strain the grid"

Which is it?

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