- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Signs are increasing that the recession has bottomed. Home sales are surging, new unemployment claims are dropping, consumer confidence is rising. The typical recession lasts about a year, and the worst one since World War II lasted 16 months. So, if history is a guide, this recession which officially started last March should be over by spring or, at latest, summer.
But don't get too comfortable. A major threat to the economy remains from a movement that calls itself conservationist and environmentalist but that, at its core, is both authoritarian and reactionary. It wants to run your life, and it wants to return to a romanticized state of nature that would leave billions of people with no hope that economic growth can pull them out of poverty. And what this movement has in mind is not a biological or geological environment, but a political one inimical to human freedom.
One manifestation of this movement run amok is the Kyoto Protocol, which decreed that, to combat the chimera of global warming, the United States would have to cut drastically its use of fossil fuels at a cost, estimated by the Clinton Energy Department of $300 billion or more a year. Resisting pressure, not only from Greens but from industry, President Bush courageously declared the agreement "fatally flawed" last March.
That effectively killed it to the chagrin of officials from Enron Corp., one of whom said after Al Gore signed the treaty in 1997, that Kyoto "would do more to promote Enron's business than almost any other initiative." Enron, a major backer of environmental groups, would have profited both by serving as an exchange for trading greenhouse-gas emissions rights and by having demand for power from its natural gas plant increase at the expense of coal.
But another threat looms. Politicians want to raise CAFE mandates sharply, requiring manufacturers to raise the "corporate average fuel economy" of their vehicles from current levels: 20.7 mpg for light truck fleets and 27.5 mpg for car fleets.
Let's get this straight: As a simple matter of personal freedom and consumer choice, it should not be up to the government to determine how many miles my car can travel on a gallon of gasoline.
Informed of the facts, I can decide myself, and my demand will determine what gets produced. If I want a high-MPG car, I have plenty of options. But I may want another kind of vehicle for reasons of safety and comfort for example. That vehicle, mainly because it is heavier, will get fewer mpg. I know my fuel costs will be higher, but I am willing to pay them.
But even Republicans are wavering. Bill O'Reilly, the television host who to some is a conservative icon, said recently that "our greedy corporate executives and our weak-willed politicians" are denying Americans 50-MPG cars. Mr. O'Reilly was echoing the comments of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who wants CAFE requirements boosted to 55 mpg.
But if the objective of CAFE laws has been to reduce gasoline consumption, they have been a bust. Since 1975, when the rules were first imposed, crude oil imports have doubled. That's not hard to understand: When a car gets more miles to the gallon, a person tends to drive it more.
What would deter gasoline consumption? Either higher gas prices or a prolonged economic slowdown. Unfortunately, for the back-to-nature reactionaries, energy companies are fiercely competitive, holding prices down, and they have made huge investments in technology to reduce the cost of getting oil out of ground and below the sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy tends to grow at about 3 percent annually over the long term.
On safety, the record could not be clearer. Higher CAFE regulations mean lighter cars, and lighter cars are less safe. A study by USA Today found that, in the quarter-century since the laws were enacted, 46,000 people died on our highways who would otherwise be alive without CAFE. A study by John Graham of Harvard and Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution estimated that deaths due to CAFE totaled 2,200 to 3,900 a year a horrifying number.
CAFE also raises costs for consumers by $500 to $2,500 per car, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Another study notes that CAFE has cost the U.S. some 200,000 jobs, shifted to manufacturers in other countries.
There is no underestimating the threat that CAFE poses to what many economists consider the most important industry in America: making cars and trucks. In the wake of last September's terror attacks and a sharply slowing economy, General Motors took the bold step of cutting auto loan rates to zero. Other automakers followed suit, and production and sales remained strong against all odds.
It would be a cruel irony and a terrible blow to an energetic, patriotic industry to enact higher CAFE standards. Instead, the administration and Congress should freeze them or, better, roll them back. That would save lives, enhance consumer choice and remove a serious threat to economic growth.

James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and host of www.TechCentralStation.com


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