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Opinion Manchin’s ludicrous attack on electric vehicles bodes badly for our future

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). (F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg News)
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Fresh off their retreat in Philadelphia, House Democrats have decided their best hope for holding their majority lies in showing they can deliver. So it’s bad news for Democrats that Sen. Joe Manchin III is sending new signals of opposition to a scaled-down version of President Biden’s climate and social policy agenda.

In comments that are now sinking in hard among Democrats, Manchin recently told an energy conference that he is “very reluctant” to see the development of electric vehicles, a key component of a rehabilitated Biden blueprint to combat climate change.

The problem here is that Manchin’s stance appears grounded in a deeply flawed conception of government and the economy that could undermine the very foundation of the case for acting on climate, and how we should do so.

This bodes very badly. It means we might squander an opening for the Russian invasion of Ukraine to build deeper public consensus for shifting away from fossil fuels. And it dims hopes for getting major new climate policy passed before Democrats lose the House, possibly killing those prospects for many years.

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“I’m very reluctant to go down the path of electric vehicles,” Manchin said at the conference. “I’m old enough to remember standing in line in 1974 trying to buy gas.” He added he doesn’t want to wait in line “for a battery for my vehicle, because we’re now dependent on a foreign supply chain.”

“I’ve read history, and I remember Henry Ford inventing the Model-T,” Manchin also said, “but I sure as hell don’t remember the U.S. government building filling stations — the market did that.”

What’s galling is that Manchin recently signaled openness to a smaller Biden blueprint that would raise some high-end taxes and use the revenue for deficit reduction and investing in climate.

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Such a proposal would ideally include large tax credits to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles and other technologies. The concept is that government can help accelerate the development of those technologies, which are critical to a decarbonized future.

Let’s first note that it’s extraordinarily cynical for Manchin to evoke bad memories of 1970s gas lines to argue against electric vehicles. High oil and gas prices right now, in the context of the Russian invasion, make a strong case for reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Manchin’s demagoguery turns that on its head.

Beyond this, Manchin says transitioning to electric vehicles will put us at the mercy of China’s dominance in electric car batteries. And more vaguely, he suggests government shouldn’t encourage development of electric vehicles, because the good ol’ gas-guzzling automobile’s infrastructure didn’t benefit from government help. That was created by “the market.”

Parsing Manchin’s position is challenging. After all, the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed last year — which Manchin championed — included billions in subsidies for electric vehicle charging stations. So Manchin doesn’t flatly oppose all government help for the development of such technologies.

But Manchin does appear to be saying that, in a broader sense, the electric car’s development shouldn’t benefit from too much government help, because the traditional auto did not.

This has puzzled Democrats. One senior congressional aide tells me Manchin’s objections, as stated to other Democrats, have been far narrower, to things such as the proper income threshold for qualifying for tax credits to buy electric cars.

But let’s assume that this broader objection is Manchin’s true philosophical position.

What’s strange about this is that government investment is the answer to his first warning. If Manchin’s fear is Chinese dominance of battery supply chains, then government investment to encourage domestic production of such essentials for electric cars could mitigate that. Indeed, Democrats have pointed out that a resuscitated climate package would include exactly this.

Manchin’s deeper argument is also off-kilter. It posits the existence of some kind of immaculately government-free market in which the traditional auto and its infrastructure developed, in contrast with electric vehicles, which need government help to get off the ground.

But government investment has been the foundation of the development of technologies throughout U.S. history. As the great book “American Amnesia” recounts, much U.S. technological advancement in the 20th century “rested on public efforts to encourage and spread technological innovations through modern infrastructure.”

This includes the development of the automobile and its infrastructure, notes Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, who co-wrote “American Amnesia.”

“The basic reality is that the modern roadway system, including the ubiquitous fuel station, was as much a creature of government as any major feature of our economy in the 20th century,” Hacker told me.

“Road planners, both state and federal, mapped out major roadways, purchased or seized land, and, in many cases, set up the well-spaced fueling franchises necessary to ensure that people could get where they wanted to go speedily,” Hacker continued. “Much of this was funded by gas taxes.”

“The spread of the filling station was anything but a free-market development,” Hacker said. He noted that without a “foundation of government investment and regulation,” the auto would have been “all but worthless.”

Here’s the rub: Government should subsidize development of electric vehicles precisely because the “market” probably cannot achieve this on its own at the outset. Government can help markets achieve a social imperative — speeding our transition off fossil fuels — just as it has throughout our history.

But unfortunately, that underlying policy goal is what Manchin appears to oppose. Which bodes very badly indeed.