The Magazine

The Twilight of the Volt

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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In July 2010, President Obama paid a visit to a General Motors plant in Hamtramck, Michigan, and gave a speech making the case for a revitalized American auto industry. To paraphrase the former governor of Alaska, how’d that hopey-changey stuff work out for Hamtramck?

Photo of a Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt

That December, the New York Times reported that city leaders were pushing for Hamtramck to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Aside from the failing economy, 60 percent of the city’s general operating budget went to pay for the salaries and pensions of just the cops and firefighters. The city tried to renegotiate employee contracts, but the union reps were intransigent. “They kind of have the Cadillac plan,” Hamtramck’s city manager told the Times, “and we’d kind of like the Chevy.”

Speaking of Chevrolet, shortly before the Times was reporting on the city’s desire to file for bankruptcy, the first federally subsidized, electric-powered Chevy Volts started rolling off the assembly line at a GM plant in, you guessed it, Hamtramck. Chevy has actually produced an ad called “Morning in Hamtramck” that scans the worn scenery of the town to a plaintive guitar soundtrack. The narrator solemnly intones: “For our town. For our country. For our future. This isn’t just the car we wanted to build; it’s the car America had to build.”

Obama recently declared he wanted to buy a Volt when he left office, but at this rate, it’s going to be a used one. GM announced on March 1 that they’re suspending production of the Volt in Hamtramck​—​for the third time​—​leaving 1,300 people temporarily out of work. Despite selling only 7,671 Volts last year, GM had planned to expand production to 60,000 this year. Something tells us that won’t happen. Forget “Morning in Hamtramck.” Truth About Cars editor Edward Niedermeyer has declared recent events to be the “Twilight of the Volt,” and produced a handy graph last week showing that production of the Volt thus far has been nearly twice its sales.

And so, Hamtramck, Michigan, has become a nearly perfect metaphor for Obama’s America. The city’s bankruptcy claim has been denied by the state, so they’re stuck overpaying unionized city employees with money they don’t have. And the taxpayers don’t have any money because the auto plant in town is laying people off en masse. It was manufacturing “the car America had to build” regardless of whether Americans wanted to buy it. 

Shockingly, few besides the president have wanted a $40,000 electric car that sometimes catches on fire, in spite of the fact that each new Volt comes with a $7,500 tax credit. (Who benefits from the credit? Rich liberals, mainly. The average annual income of America’s Volt owners is $170,000.) Of course, Chevy doubled down on the Volt because the eco-crazy, energy-prices-must-skyrocket Obama administration all but dictated that GM continue to build an electric car in exchange for receiving taxpayer money in the auto bailout, the same bailout that ended up being little more than a temporary payoff to the unions whose contracts helped bankrupt GM in the first place.

Naturally, as Volt workers were being laid off, the president announced that he wants to raise the electric car tax credit to $10,000, earmark $1 billion for cities to build infrastructure for electric cars, and spend another $650 million for electric car research. Nothing like throwing good money after bad, especially when it’s everybody else’s money. 

If only some crack engineer could just develop a car that runs on government failure and union arrogance, maybe things in Hamtramck​—​and the rest of the country​—​would finally start to look up.

Ho, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Seltzer

The Scrapbook has not been one to complain about the wussification of the armed forces, especially since the evidence in Iraq and Afghanistan and Kuwait, and other hotspots around the world, is as good an argument as any against it. But The Scrapbook was just a little discouraged the other day to learn that the Navy intends to install breath-test machines on all ships and sub-marines and on Marine Corps bases.

This is not because The Scrapbook believes in drinking while on duty, or denies that the abuse of alcohol has been, and can be, a social problem afflicting soldiers, sailors, and airmen alike. But it does remind us that the instincts of the nanny state are incessantly intrusive, and that the United States Navy, which has successfully defended these shores since 1775, is not exempt from such intrusions.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus explains that the installation of the breathalyzers is not in response to any specific problem​—​no reported epidemic of sloshed skippers, weaving chiefs, or drunken submariners​—​but “We are telling [them] that it is important to keep legal, responsible use of alcohol from turning into a problem.” Secretary Mabus tells the Washington Post that “alcohol is surfacing as a factor in a host of social and professional ills that are increasingly of concern to the Navy brass.”

This is another way of saying that because alcohol has the potential of being a problem for some people​—​which has been generally understood since the beginning of human history​—​it is necessary to signify official distrust of all people who serve in the Navy. This is, of course, the sort of thinking that led to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (Prohibition), and we know how that turned out.

In fact, the prohibition of alcohol in the naval service is considerably younger than the Navy itself. From its very beginnings, the United States Navy, in accordance with tradition and an act of Congress (1794), offered its officers and men a daily ration of “one-half pint of distilled spirits .  .  . or in lieu thereof, one quart of beer,” and in 1831, servicemen were permitted to relinquish their ration for cash (six cents a day). There were, of course, obvious restrictions on alcohol in certain circumstances; but as the prohibition movement gained strength in the latter half of the 19th century, the Navy was obliged to respond to political pressure.

Finally, in 1914, the man and the moment came together: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, a militant prohibitionist and newspaper editor(!), issued his infamous General Order 99 banning “the use or introduction for drinking purposes of alcoholic liquors on board any naval vessel, or within any navy yard or station.” The rations of grog, the casks of rum, the wine messes, were all tossed overboard. (Naval personnel are now entitled to a modest allotment of beer after periods at sea.)

The Scrapbook is not suggesting that Daniels’s Folly be overturned, or that sobriety is not a weapon in the warrior’s arsenal. But breathalyzer machines on shipboard, and installed at Marine bases, strikes us (to use a related metaphor) as a bridge too far. No less an authority than Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey Jr., of World War II renown, once remarked, “I don’t trust a fighting man who doesn’t drink and smoke,” and he managed to live a long life and vanquish the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Obama’s Pledges: Trust, but Verify

Last October, the State Department assured Republican senator Jon Kyl that “any engagement with North Korea will not be used as a mechanism to funnel financial or other rewards to Pyongyang.” And in another letter last month, Kyl was told “the [Obama] administration has no intention of rewarding North Korea for actions it has already agreed to take.” As a promise to forgo appeasement of the Hermit Kingdom’s youthful new ruler, Kim Jong Eun, this appeared to be solid stuff.

Only it wasn’t. On February 29, a new agreement was announced. North Korea would suspend uranium enrichment and other “nuclear activities” at its Yongbyon facility, permit some inspections, and halt long-range missile launchings. And what would North Korea get in return? Nothing at all, the State Department said.

Oh, yes, the United States will send 240,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea. But that’s for humanitarian reasons alone, the department said. It’s not a quid pro quo. 

Please. Should anyone accept that alibi? Even the mainstream media had trouble believing the timing of the deal and announcement of the food aid was a coincidence. The aid will supposedly be monitored to make sure it goes to starving North Koreans, not the military. But it’s never worked before. “We are simply feeding young Kim’s dictatorship,” said former United Nations ambassador John Bolton.

The explanation about food aid being unrelated to the deal was bogus. And so was the notion that North Korea wouldn’t be credited with pledges it had made before, then violated. It was.

All this raises a question. If the promises about North Korea are so cavalierly cast aside, what about President Obama’s insistence he has “Israel’s back” against Iran and its nuclear weapons program? The Scrapbook has a pretty good idea what Ronald Reagan would advise: Trust, but verify.

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