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Liberalism by gesture

WASHINGTON — The era of Gesture Liberalism is at hand. It may be more amusing than consequential.

Americans who exercise consumer sovereignty wherever Barack Obama still tolerates it are constantly disappointing him. For generations they persisted in buying what he calls “substandard” policies from what he calls “bad apple” health insurers. They stopped only when he forced them to stop — when he rescued them from their ignorance by banning their benighted preferences.

Have consumers thanked him for trying to wean them away from their desire to drive large, useful, comfortable, safe vehicles that he thinks threaten their habitat, Earth? The 2013 numbers tell the tale of their ingratitude. In 2013, for the 32nd consecutive year, the best-selling vehicle was Ford’s F-Series pickup. This supremacy began, fittingly, in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s deregulatory presidency.

Today’s consumers, who cannot get it through their thick heads that they are supposed to want wee vehicles such as Chevrolet’s Volt, bought 763,402 F-Series trucks. That is 740,308 more than the number of Volts General Motors sold.

In 2010, a GM official carefully said “more than 120,000 potential Volt customers have already signaled interest in the car.” Signaled? How? Not by buying. At the 2013 rate of sales, by 2046 GM will have sold as many Volts as Ford sold F-Series trucks this year. Obama, our Nostradamus, prophesied a million electric cars on U.S. roads by 2015. If so, they will have to outsell F-Series trucks this year.

The sort-of-electric Volt — it is a hybrid — probably is one of those great ideas Joe Biden celebrated in 2010: “Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive.” Government’s incentive for Volt buyers is a tax credit up to $7,500. A 2011 study showed that taxpayer-subsidized Volt or Nissan LEAF buyers had average annual incomes of $150,000, and more than half of them owned at least two other vehicles.

In 2009, the Obama administration disapprovingly said: “GM earns a large share of its profits from high-margin trucks and SUVs, which are vulnerable to a continuing shift in consumer preferences to smaller vehicles.” Continuing? A 2011 Wall Street Journal headline: “Americans Embrace SUVs Again.” A Wall Street Journal subhead last week: “U.S. Sales Cruise Back to 2007 Levels, Driven by Fondness for Pickups, SUVs.”

Building the Volt was bankrupt-and-bailed-out GM’s gesture of obeisance to its Washington masters. And causing the Volt to be built was a gesture by those masters to demonstrate how much they worry about the climate. The climate may not understand the importance of gestures.

Today, Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Sebelius may be the second-most serendipitously named court case in U.S. history, second to Loving v. Virginia (wherein Richard Loving, who was white, and his wife Mildred, who was black, in 1967 overturned Virginia’s law against interracial marriages). The Little Sisters are challenging the Obamacare mandate that makes them complicit in providing, through their health insurance, contraception, something that offends their faith.

This mandate illustrates Gesture Liberalism: It is unimportant to the structure of Obamacare. It has nothing to do with real insurance, which protects against unexpected developments — car insurance does not pay for oil changes. The mandate covers a minor expense: Target sells a month of birth control pills for $9.00. The mandate is, however, a gesture affirming liberalism’s belief that any institution of civil society can be properly broken to the saddle of the state.

The next item on Gesture Liberalism’s agenda is to raise the minimum wage for the 23rd time. Less than 3 percent of the workforce earns the minimum; more than 60 percent of those who do earn it get a raise within a year; more than half of minimum-wage earners are students or other part-time workers from households with average incomes of $53,000. Never mind. Raising the minimum is a gesture of devotion to “equality.”

As is Obama’s support for universal preschool, the centerpiece of the agenda of New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio. When, in Obama’s first Inaugural address, he vowed to “restore science to its rightful place,” he evidently meant to exclude social science: There is much discouraging data about the efficacy of universal preschool.

It will, however, mean billions for hiring more members of teachers’ unions, whose dues will help elect the likes of Obama and de Blasio. So this component of Gesture Liberalism is more than just a gesture.

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com. (c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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