Let’s stipulate that subsidizing the purchase of electric cars brings about some environmental benefits.

The question is, are the benefits worth the cost?

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The answer seems to be no. For one thing, the costs are pretty high, starting with the fact that electric-car subsidies are deeply regressive. They take tax dollars from all Americans - including minimum-wage workers - and send the money primarily to the rich and upper middle class. The typical buyer of a Chevy Volt, for example, earns around $170,000 a year.

The billions spent on subsidies also have another “cost”: opportunity cost. Money spent on one thing can’t be spent on something else; and in the case of electric-car subsidies, all kinds of other choices could have been made with that money, including spending it on environmentally friendly projects such as building bike lanes and developing mass transit.

Notably, those spending choices not only would reduce air pollution, but also would do so while helping the poor.  

So, in order to justify a regressive subsidy that lavishes scarce resources on people who don’t really need them, the environmental benefits of electric cars had better be clear-cut.

Are they?

They are not. A North Carolina State University research team reported on this subject earlier this year. Here’s how National Geographic’s news service summarized the results: “The team reported that even in scenarios that yield the highest levels of electric-vehicle deployment (high oil prices, low battery costs), plug-ins and hybrids would make up no more than 42 percent of all U.S. passenger vehicles in 2050 and would reduce overall emissions by a slim margin. …

“Simply put, the North Carolina researchers concluded that electric cars have little ability to make a dent in overall emissions on their own.”

Rest assured, these and similar findings will be disputed. But that’s the point: To justify multiple billions in government spending - especially multiple billions that subsidize the lifestyles of the rich - the benefits should be so clear as to be just about inarguable.

Lots of “maybes,” claims and counter-claims suggest that the benefits, even if real, will be marginal at best. The government would be better off either letting taxpayers keep their own money or spending it on sure things.