General Motors, an appendage of the government, which owns 61 percent of it, is spending some of your money, dear reader, on full-page newspaper ads praising a government brainstorm — the Volt, Chevrolet's highly anticipated and prematurely celebrated (sort of) electric car.
Although the situation is murky — GM and its government masters probably prefer it that way — it is unclear in what sense GM has any money that is truly its own. And the Volt is not quite an electric car, or not the sort GM deliberately misled Americans into expecting.
It is another hybrid. GM said the Volt would be an "all electrically driven vehicle” whose gas engine would be a mere range-extender, powering the Volt's generator, not its wheels: The engine just would maintain the charge as the battery ran down. Now GM says that at some point when the battery's charge declines, or when the car is moving near 70 mph, the gas engine will power the wheels.
The newspaper ads proclaim, "Chevrolet Runs Deep." Whatever that means, if anything, it does not mean the Volt runs deep into a commute or the countryside just on electricity. At the bottom of the ads, there is this, in microscopic print: "Volt available in CA, TX, MI, NY, NJ, CT and Washington, DC, at the end of 2010. Quantities limited." Well.
Quantities of everything — except perhaps God's mercy, which is said to be infinite — are limited. But quantities of the Volt are going to be so limited that 44 states can only pine for Volts from afar. Good, because the federal government, which evidently is feeling flush, will give tax credits of up to $7,500 to every Volt purchaser.
The Volt was conceived to appease the automotive engineers in Congress, which knows that people will have to be bribed, with other people's money, to buy this $41,000 car that seats only four people (the 435-pound battery eats up space).
Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, said in a letter to The Wall Street Journal: "The early enthusiastic consumer response — more than 120,000 potential Volt customers have already signaled interest in the car, and orders have flowed since the summer — give us confidence that the Volt will succeed on its merits." Disregard the slipperiness ("signaled interest" how?) and telltale reticence (how many orders have "flowed"?). But "on its merits"? Why, then, the tax credits and other subsidies?
The Automotive Engineer in Chief — our polymathic president — says there will be a million plug-in cars in America by 2015. This will require much higher gasoline prices (perhaps $9 a gallon) and much bigger bribes: GM, which originally was expected to produce as many as 60,000 next year, now says 10,000 for all of North America.
GM says that, battery powered, the Volt has a 40-mile range. Popular Mechanics says 33. Thomas R. Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, the trade association of the electric utility industry, is, understandably, a Volt enthusiast: This supposedly "green" vehicle will store electric energy — 10 to 12 hours of charging on household current — produced by coal- and gas-fired power plants.
The federal government, although waist-deep in red ink, offers another bribe: Any purchaser can get a tax credit of up to 50 percent of the cost (up to $2,000) of an extra-powerful (240 volt) charger. California, although so strapped it recently issued IOUs to vendors, offers a $5,000 cash rebate for which Volt buyers are not eligible but purchases of Nissan's electric Leaf are.
In April, in a television commercial and a Wall Street Journal column headlined "The GM Bailout: Paid Back in Full," GM's then-CEO Ed Whitacre said "we have repaid our government loan, in full, with interest, five years ahead of the original schedule." Rubbish.
GM, which has received almost $50 billion in government subventions, repaid a $6.7 billion loan using other federal funds, a TARP-funded escrow account. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, called this a “TARP money shuffle." A commentator compared it to "paying off your Visa credit card with your MasterCard."
Meretricious accounting and deceptive marketing are inevitable when government and its misnamed "private sector" accomplices foist state capitalism on an appalled country. But those who thought the ethanol debacle defined outer limits of government foolishness pertaining to automobiles were, alas, mistaken.
George Will's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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