September 20, 2009

Government stimulus for moral preening rather than water and energy conservation

If you believe people are using too much of a scarce resource, the solution is remarkably simple -- raise the price. That will convey that this stuff is a lot scarcer than people had thought. They would prefer not to pay such high prices, so they'll automatically scale back their consumption of it. It's only when the stuff is so cheap that people take it for granted and don't give the slightest thought to conserving it -- as with the air we breathe, for instance.

But with resources whose markets are regulated by the government -- either from being public utilities or regulated private companies -- the simple and effective solution is much tougher to achieve. Government regulators are not in the business of getting prices right -- remember the oil crisis of the '70s? They are more or less a bunch of losers who couldn't do anything productive with their lives, and who salvage their self-esteem by imagining themselves as saviors of the people. "Somebody's gotta make sure that water stays affordable for all Americans -- I guess it might as well be me." As a result, they tend to keep prices artificially low for things like water and electricity.

And yet, that doesn't make the problem of over-consumption go away -- indeed, that is the very cause. Before environmentalism became sexy, regulators could simply have disregarded over-consumption and remained content with their champion of the little guy image. But that's no longer possible -- green, eco-friendly sustainability now commands just as much attention as saving souls once used to among the priestly caste.

So how do they strike a balance between causing over-consumption by forcing prices to be artificially low and assuring their Sierra Club donors that they're doing everything they can to tackle over-consumption? Simple: brow-beat people into using less, or adopting more efficient technologies. Here are two recent examples of local and national regulators pursuing these hopeless policies -- for energy and for water.

Notice that the regulators never defend their decision not to allow prices to move freely, so that they could go high enough to curb consumption. And the reporters, even for the Wall Street Journal, never question them on this. That is how incurably clouded the elite mind has become on these issues ever since environmentalism became fashionable. No one gives a shit anymore about conserving scarce resources -- instead, it's all about how to signal your moral superiority. Take the WaterSense initiative, which will reward you with an eco bumper sticker for your house if it consumes less water than average.

"Oh, well sure, some people may be content to just waste water on their tacky lawns all day, but I guess some of us are just more concerned about not raping Mother Earth. But once they see the cool WaterSense sticker on my window, they'll get jealous enough to want one too. So I mean, I'm just doing my part to make sure everyone else behaves as responsibly as I do."

If such a person's neighbors have any concern over the state of civilization, they will use that sticker for the only thing it's good for -- as a bullseye for a 500-gallon water balloon.

The continued legislative efforts to force consumer electronics companies to make more energy-efficient products is no less stupid. Again, it's all about being able to display your MacBook's Energy Star logo for all your crunchy confreres at the Whole Foods cafe to behold.

Rather than push policies that only provide incentives for jackass environmentalists to toot their own horn even more loudly, we need to simply let the prices of water and energy move freely. If people really are over-consuming, then getting a water bill that's 20 times greater than last month's will be a fairly clear wake-up call. Without resorting to moral strutting at all, they will slash their water usage in order to tame their now unwieldy water bill. If no products exist that are very efficient, existing companies will go broke as entrepreneurs who introduce new efficient products capture all of the now budget-conscious shoppers' money. Ditto for electricity. More, this would spur them to adopt more efficient appliances or less water-guzzling plant species for their yards, and they would also spontaneously reduce the percent of their land area devoted to grass -- again without even thinking about abstract sustainability, but just about the hole burning in their own pocket.

And of course, the handful of people who are obsessed with having their appliances being on all the time, or with watering their lawns all day, could still do so, but they'd have to pay through the nose for using up so much of a scarce resource.

But as long as these industries remain in the hands of regulators, don't expect the right thing to happen -- plan on further efforts to stimulate moral preening among consumers and make the regulators feel like their lives had a purpose.


  1. Here's an idea that will let people get their feelings of moral superiority, but might actually accomplish something in terms of water and energy conservation.

    Print out the household's percentile use for gas/electricity/water/sewer/etc on each bill. If your percentile is in the 90th percentile for at least a year (i.e. 90% of the people in your area use more resources than you do), give that person some sort of visible recognition---like a stamp on the driver's license for 'safe driver', and make that classification something that it is A-OK to discriminate on the basis of, irrespective of any 'disparate impact'. Maybe you'd even be allowed to buy a special paint job on your car, like the Mary Kay Pink...but in this case, call it 'Al Gore Green'.

    If the Greens want orthopraxis, this is how you get it. Presently being green/sustainable/etc is pretty much all about saying the right words, and making irrelevant gestures. This method uses people's desire for relative status to manipulate them into doing what you want to.

    Or you could just tax the bejesus out of things you believe we need to conserve. That would also work, but the electorate would express its displeasure on you pretty harshly.

  2. Here we hear about conserving water till some wretched flood destroys billions of $ of property. Then we don't hear about the water "shortage" for a while.

    Water scarcity is regional. Logic would motivate people to move to places where there is cheap, clean hydro electric power, plenty of clean water, and and plenty of rain, but who said people are logical.

  3. I wish more people were aware that watering your grass at dusk, right before nightfall, will allow the water to really seep in the ground and get down to the roots without being evaporated back into the air.

    Its astonishing to see in the summertime, but one witnesses every year numerous homes watering their lawn with sprinklers at 11:00 in the morning, wasting at least half the water they are spraying.**

    Another water-saving tip is to mow your hard on the higher settings so the grass is tall enough to "shade" the ground beneath it, keeping it from drying out. It also helps the roots grow deeper and get at water further down in the soil. My yard looks pretty good for no more care than Ive directed towards it. Ive only briefly watered during droughts for a few minutes at dusk perhaps once a week. Its kept it alive for years through a few summer dry spells.

    ** some argue that day watering allows the chlorine to be evaportated before the water seeps into the ground, and this is true. However you are watering during dry spells merely to "keep the grass alive", not to make it beautific. The rain will return (always does) to re-nourish your lawn.

    Weather note: It was the coolest summer of my lifetime in the middle south. It seemed 5-10 degrees lower than normal most days. We didn't even have one 100 degree day. Most daily highs were in the upper 80's or low 90's. Our "average summer day" here historically is about 95. I dont believe in AGW at all, and actually think its about to start getting cooler (sun spots lessening), which is why the establishment is hysterically pushing the overarching legislation that they are.

  4. "Another water-saving tip is to mow your hard on..."

    Ouch...bad idea.

  5. Or you could just tax the bejesus out of things you believe we need to conserve.

    Well it wouldn't be a tax -- it would just be a free movement of prices. If they were being kept artificially low, they'd move up and people would consume less. If they were kept artificially high, they'd move down and people would consume more.

    So it's not taxing or donating -- just taking their hands of the levers.

  6. "They are more or less a bunch of losers who couldn't do anything productive with their lives, and who salvage their self-esteem by imagining themselves as saviors of the people."

    Would you share with the class what scientific data you used to reach this penetrating insight?

  7. Moral Preening, that's a good word. It perfectly describes your holy-than-thou attitude toward people who don't meet your arbitrary definitions of manliness. Or really your arbitrary definitions of anything for that matter. You are quite the moral preener.

  8. Of course, manliness isn't arbitrarily defined. If it were, you'd find as many people who said it was manly to sip sugary drinks all day as those who said it was childish and girly to do so.

    P.S. -- stalking me online in this way (leaving emotional comments everywhere) is flattering, but I have to let you know I don't swing that way. So it's for the good of your own image that you cut back on the clingy commenting.


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