07/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Power Failure: McCain's Batteries Are Flat

When politicians really want to show us their ignorance, they pretend to be entrepreneurs. That's certainly what John McCain has done now. A $300 million prize for a "battery package" (whatever that is) that reduces the costs of an automobile by thirty percent sounds great, but really it's no more than cowardly posturing.

Think about it. Can you seriously imagine that there aren't companies out there working overtime on new battery technologies? Of course there are. Boston-Power to name but one. They're working on it because the real prize is worth a lot more than McCain's $300 million.

But even if McCain's did inspire some breakthrough -- would that do the trick? No, what you'd need is a car company to adopt it. It's not the technology, stupid -- that's the (relatively) easy part. The hard part is everything that comes next: persuading car manufacturers to use the invention, to pay a fair price for it, not to monopolize it, to enable the inventor(s) to make enough profit that the technology continues to develop. Oh, and then there's the really hard part: building a car that uses this new battery that consumers actually like.

The track record of US car companies is lamentable on all these fronts. They've virtually forgotten how to make cars Americans love and trust. They're notorious for their vendor relationships. And they don't play nice with one another. It's why the industry as a whole looks like a relic from the gilded age -- because that's what it is.

McCain's clearly no better an historian than he is an industrialist. Citing the Longitude Prize as his inspiration, he clearly forgot that it took fifty-nine years before the Longitude Board awarded their prize to John Harrison. And that was after the Board had become a byword for favoritism and corruption. Romantics may remember the story as the triumph of the little guy against the odds; others remember it as a story in which the establishment did everything it could to squash new thinking and protect old friends. Is that really what McCain's after -- cash for cronies?

Nor does McCain come out of this latest brainstorm as a great engineer. Note: he says nothing about the ecological consequences of the technology he wishes to inspire. He speaks merely of cost, wanting us all to be able to maintain our lifestyle -- just pay less. It's a cowardly sop, dodging the truly hard truths around energy consumption and climate change: We are all going to have to change our habits and we are all going to have to pay the price. And $300 million dollars won't be anywhere near enough to buy our way out.