(Your Own) Portable Jesus

I

In mid-October two senators introduced bills concerning the federal tax credit for purchasers of qualifying electric cars. (For an explanation of how the tax credit works click here.)

Senator John Barrasso (R-Fossil Fuels) proposed to “eliminate the tax credit for electric cars and [instead] institute a new tax on electric cars and alternative fuel vehicles.”

His fellow Republican, Dean Heller of Nevada, “would keep the electric vehicle tax credit in place and lift the cap that is looming over General Motors Co. and Tesla Inc.” (The credit starts to sunset after a company sells 200,000 electric vehicles.)

Snark notwithstanding, I’m sort of ambivalent about the issue. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that the tax credit is a subsidy for the relatively well-off. The least expensive electric cars that qualify for the $7500 tax credit start at around $30,000. If you want to be able to visit relatives who live out-of-state without your range anxiety getting out of control, the prices start closer to $40,000.

In addition, there’s another cost associated with owning an electric vehicle: owning or renting a home with a garage where you can charge the car overnight, preferably with a 240 volt charger.

To state the obvious, the large majority of Americans cannot afford such a car.

Still, this isn’t the principal source of my ambivalence. If I were really bothered by unfair tax breaks for the well-off, I’d favor the repeal of the home mortgage interest deduction, which disproportionately benefits households making $100,000 a year or more. And I would be agitating for the abolition of the National Flood Insurance Program, which functions in significant part as a subsidy for well-off people’s beach houses.

And, not being a libertarian, I have no objection to the government providing incentives for behavior it deems virtuous or otherwise in the public interest, even if the incentives disproportionately favor the well-off. If a wealthy person is willing to give millions to build a children’s hospital and an autism center in upstate New York, that sort of action should be incentivized.

No, I’m ambivalent because I have doubts about how much virtue is involved here.

II

If you ask someone why they want to buy an electric car, the two answers you will virtually always get are “to save the planet” or some variant thereof, and “fuel economy.”

What you will rarely, if ever, hear them say is that they want a rolling status symbol: a cool, and in some case, luxury car that says the “right things” about them.

The ultimate example of this is, of course, the Tesla Model 3, which is “now the best-selling luxury car in America,” and it isn’t even close. While Tesla owners and fanboys might object to the “luxury” label, that’s silly. What would you call a call a car whose least-expensive version goes for about $50,000, has a zero-to-sixty time of 4.7 seconds, and can, for all intents and purposes, drive itself, at least on the interstate?

While no one would ever slap the “luxury” label on other electric cars, even there the “coolness” and even prestige factor is still a large part of the equation, which, to be fair, is true of a lot of car purchases, at least in that price range.

Except the owners of other similarly-priced cars aren’t claiming that their consumption is good for the planet, much less potentially saving it. And while I don’t doubt the sincerity of these claims, I do doubt their accuracy.

III

The claimed virtue of owning an electric vehicle lies in its lack of emissions. While “emissions” can refer to what we think of as “pollutants,” such as carbon monoxide, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides, what the people who talk about these vehicles as a kind of, with apologies to Depeche Mode, “portable Jesus,” have in mind are greenhouse gas emissions.

The salvific quality of these cars lies in their potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and, thus, possibly avoiding the global catastrophe that awaits us or at least our children. (Irony alert.)

That raises an obvious question: How big a difference can they make? The answer is “not that much.”

According to the EPA, 28 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from what it calls the “transportation sector.” That includes everything that carries stuff that isn’t a mammal: cars, trucks, planes, ships, and “other,” whatever that is.

Of this 28 percent, 60 percent — approximately 17 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — comes from what are called “light duty vehicles,” which are vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of less than 8500 pounds. This includes not only automobiles, but also SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans.

It’s difficult bordering on impossible to know what percentage of light duty vehicles are cars as opposed to SUVs or trucks. The closest I could come to some sort of answer was this University of Michigan study that projected future car and light truck sales on the basis of several factors including gas prices and family income. Their range for car sales was between 29 and 53 percent of all sales.

Good enough for now. Using the upper range and saying that half of the light duty vehicles are cars, we end up with cars being responsible for, at most, about eight percent (16.8 times .50) of all greenhouse gas emissions. “At most” because, one, cars are more fuel efficient than trucks, and two, the fifty percent estimate probably overstates the case.

Thus, if you replaced half of all the cars in the United States with electric vehicles, which is highly unlikely any time in the foreseeable future, you would reduce carbon emissions by a maximum of four percent.

By way of comparison, between 2005 and 2016, total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States dropped by fourteen percent. One-third of that was attributed to replacing coal with natural gas in electricity generation.  That’s a reduction of five percent. If natural gas has inspired the cult-like devotion that electric cars have or if anyone anywhere has ever said something like “we must hasten the transition to natural gas or we’re all going to die!” it has escaped my attention.

IV

The halo surrounding the Tesla 3, and electric vehicles more generally, is the latest example of what has been dubbed “technological messianism,” the belief and expectation that technology will deliver us from evils, including those of our making.

An earlier example of this messianism was the subject of Donald Fagen’s ironic masterpiece “I.G.Y.” which cut the optimism that gave us, among other things, “The Jetsons” and “Star Trek,” down to size: “On that train all graphite and glitter/Undersea by rail/Ninety minutes from New York to Paris/(more leisure for artists everywhere)/A just machine to make big decisions/Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision/We’ll be clean when their work is done/We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

In 2018, Silicon Valley is the new Jerusalem. Almost from the beginning, technology companies have sold themselves in almost-messianic terms. They aren’t selling us a “better” way to do things — they are selling us a “better” way of life.

For example, following protests in places like Moldova and Iran in 2009 people hailed the role of social media such as Twitter in creating movements for change. Much the same was said during the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Never mind that, with the exception of Tunisia, very little changed, and, in some places, most notably Syria, things got a lot worse. It was proof of the power of social media, and people like Malcolm Gladwell who pointed out the many flaws in this thinking were dismissed almost out of hand.

In 2018, we know that social media can be a force for change, only it’s not the kind of change anyone should want. Facebook played an important role in the Burmese military ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. Its subsidiary WhatsApp has facilitated lynchings and mob violence in India and spread fake news in the run-up to elections in Brazil.

Even when its products aren’t implicated in crimes against humanity and the subversion of democracy, Silicon Valley is a messiah with a lousy track record as was famously summed up by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Speaking of cars, scarcely a week goes by when I don’t hear or read someone telling me that self-driving cars and trucks are just around the bend. That’s true if you’re referring to coordinates in the Oort Cloud. Here on the third rock from the Sun, self-driving and autonomous vehicles are a scam. They are “as much of a fantasy as the jet-powered Backpacks that use to be in 1960s comics.”

Yet, to paraphrase Fox Mulder, “we want to believe.” We want to believe that our problems can be fixed by smart fellows with compassion and vision. Never mind that few, if any, of these smart fellows are compassionate, and their visions have under-performed when they are not facilitating nightmares. Never mind that even the best-case scenario for the impact of our preferred “solution” will be overwhelmed by the greenhouse gas emissions produced in lifting a small percentage of India’s population out of destitution.

Don’t get me wrong. If Elon Musk inhaled and decided to give me a Model 3, I’d tattoo his image on my right ankle. (Sorry, Dave.) But the car would quickly learn the route to my church because I’ve already got a Savior.


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