WASHINGTON -- The senator was vexed. The U.S. auto companies were resisting attempts by her and other Senate well-meaners to impose a radical rise in fuel efficiency by 2017. Why can't they be more like the Chinese, she complained. Or to quote Sen. Dianne Feinstein precisely: "What the China situation, or the other countries' situation, shows is that these automakers, in all of these countries, build the automobile that the requirements for mileage state. And they don't fight it, they just do it."
Yes. That is how things work in Communist Party dictatorships. It is odd to hold up China as a model of corporate-government relations. It is also poor salesmanship. Just a week after Feinstein made that statement, the Brilliance BS6 sedan -- "a car with which (China) wanted to conquer Europe's automobile market" -- failed a German crash test so miserably that it might be banned from Europe, reported the European news agency AFX News. "It was the second time in less than two years that a Chinese-made car has failed the test, following the spectacular failure of the Landwind sport-utility vehicle made by Jiangling Motors 18 months ago."
You get what you pay for. When you build lighter cars with more fuel efficiency, you know that ultimately -- even with the best (let alone Chinese) technology -- safety is compromised. That happened three decades ago when U.S. mileage efficiency rose dramatically in response to the oil shocks of the '70s. It will likely happen again.
Now we may, as a society, decide that the trade-off is worth it. We may reason that fuel inefficiency leads to dependency on foreign oil which in turn leads us to lives lost in other ways -- such as wars to defend our interests in the oil-rich Middle East and elsewhere. But what we cannot deny is that there are trade-offs. What is fundamentally wrong with the energy bill the Senate passed last week and with the debate leading up to it is the chronic, almost pathological, refusal to recognize that there are such trade-offs.
Look at the major provisions of the bill. First, a mandated 40 percent increase in fuel-efficiency standards for automobile companies. What's wrong with that? Apart from the safety issue, there is the issue of cost. Car prices will rise. That could in turn drive one or all of the Big Three U.S. auto companies, all reeling financially, into insolvency.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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