Solving the gas crisis, one giveaway at a time

Congress is putting our money where its mouth is:

Scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs will be able to vie for a grand prize of $10 million, and smaller prizes reaching millions of dollars, under House-passed legislation to encourage research into hydrogen as an alternative fuel.

Legislation creating the “H-Prize,” modeled after the privately funded Ansari X Prize that resulted last year in the first privately developed manned rocket to reach space twice, passed the House Wednesday on a 416-6 vote. A companion bill is to be introduced in the Senate this week.

Yay? From a budgetary impact, the prize is only $10 million. When the government spends almost $3 trillion, who will miss it? (That’s not a sufficient reason, of course, as there are many “no one will miss it” appropriations.) But here’s a question: what if hydrogen isn’t the eventual best solution to switching from oil? In that scenario, either this incentive pushes entrepreneurs and scientists into sub-optimal research, or the prize is ignored or awarded to the best of the worst ideas to solving the energy crisis. At least Congress did something. No doubt subsidies for hydrogen access (supplies, stations) will follow.

Naturally, many grandiose statements must flow from the hallowed halls of Congress, since no politician wants to avoid credit for the inevitable success.

“This is an opportunity for a triple play,” said bill sponsor Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., citing benefits to national security from reduced dependence on foreign oil, cleaner air from burning pollution-free hydrogen and new jobs. “If we can reinvent the car, imagine the jobs we can create.”

I am imagining them. And so are the entrepreneurs most likely to take the investment risk necessary to create a viable alternative to the gas engine. And so are the automotive unions who will lobby Congress to protect their jobs when the technology changes on them. A rational person understands that economic and technological growth is not a zero-sum game, but he also understands that it’s not an infinity-sum game.

“Perhaps the greatest role that the H-Prize may serve is in spurring the imagination of our most valuable resource, our youth,” said co-sponsor Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill.

Really, I have nothing insightful to say on that, other than score one for Rep. Lipinski for finding a creative way to insert “for the children” into the discussion. I should’ve anticipated it, but I’m not sure I would’ve come up with that. Granted, my view is tainted by my brother, who will enter college in the fall, and his desire to be an engineer. Amazingly, that desire grew without the influence of a $10 million prize from the federal government. I’m sure he’ll study harder because of this, so it’s worth it.