Sunday, September 13, 2009

Live lavishly so others can simply live

The Oregonian today devoted almost the entire front page of the Sunday paper to cheerlead the new state energy conservation program that gives subsidized low interest 20 year loans to homeowners to install insulation and other energy savings stuff.

The huge article, which consumes almost two full pages complete with pictures, graphs, and illustrations, seems to almost go out of its way to obfuscate the inconvenient little fact: the money invested in saving energy costs more than the energy it saves.

Which, in the Oregonian's upside-down world, makes it a great investment. From the article: "The payoff would be huge ... avoid millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions and eliminate 85 percent of the expected increase in electricity demand by 2029."

First of all, this statement is just blatant editorializing, as is the phrase from the paragraph before this, which said: "Doing so would not only cut consumers' power bills, but virtually eliminate the need to build new carbon-spewing power plants."

For God's sake. Carbon spewing?

Imagine applying this ridiculous logic to any other commercial activity. "If every Oregonian agreed to reduce his consumption of sugar by 4 grams a day, we could virtually eliminate the need to build new carbon-spewing sugar processing plants."

The world view that underlies this attitude is that producing stuff is an evil to be minimized. That there is virtue in producing less.

As per usual, this is entirely backwards. There is virtue in productive activity. The more we produce, the better off we collectively are. The more jobs there are, the more well being there is for even the least productive among us.

This is the same attitude that created that bumper sticker: "Live simply so others can simply live." Exactly, 180 degrees wrong. You want others to live better? Live as lavishly as you possibly can. Produce as much as you can, make as much money as you can, and spend that money to make your life as comfortable as you can possibly afford.

THAT is what will help others to live better. Because every little thing you buy in pursuit of your own hedonistic pleasure must be produced by someone else. They get paid for producing it, and are able to then afford the things they themselves want.

Imagine what would happen to the world economy if we took the advice of this bumber sticker? let's say every single one of us reduced our consumption of everthing we use by, say, 30%. Any idea how many people would lose their livelihoods and be thrown into poverty? Millions. Hundreds of millions worldwide.

Why don't these people understand this? Why do we have to constantly open up the Oregonian and get another lecture on why we should consume less?

Little wonder the Oregonian has found itself needing to produce fewer and fewer newspapers each day.


Anonymous said...

They do understand it Rob. You know and I know that the goal of the Oregonian and the philosophy they support is control of others. People who have good private sector jobs do not need government for their subsistence. They are not dependent on government, nor do they consider government the first option to solve any problem. A person with a good private sector job - fueled by the consumption of resources - is a person who cannot easily be controlled.

Big Environment & the Oregonian - Green on the Outside, Red on the Inside.

Huck said...

Great, we get it Rob, you don't believe in global warming, and the Oregonian writes crappy editorials (even in their reporting). But you've told me in the past you understand and accept the concept of externalities. Well, as you and I have found in past discussions, we all value certain environmental costs, and risk-factors, differently. Unfortunately, your writing never incorporates this nuance, and your readers never learn anything as a result. This is the fundamental flaw in the majority of conservative opinion, and it just gets repeated.

Take a town of 10 unemployed people who live on subsistence farming, hunting, gathering, etc. Now, offer them a factory with 10 jobs that allows them to afford modern homes, health care, and all the other benefits of a wealthy nation. No-brainer, there are benefits that you mention, and consumption of that factory's output is the only thing that begets those benefits. True enough.

But the same may not be true of a town of 1 million, or 10, or a billion. Maybe it is, but it sure isn't a simple theory at that point.

Here is one illustrative point to this story. I've spoken recently to numerous "native" Oregonians that have no idea that we get 45% of our electricity from the Boardman coal plant. They literally thought the Northwest gets all it's power from the BPA hydro facilities. We could afford to shut that facility down today by shifting our consumption from other goods to pay higher electric rates for cleaner forms of power. I'm not advocating that, but the answer isn't a no-brainer because the average consumer doesn't even know it's there, so they can't be making rational decisions!

The same goes for food. The same people don't understand we subsidize McDonalds and Coke, but not vegetables and grass-fed meat. We could drastically improve our health and that of our environment by spending the 18% of national income on food that we did in the 1950s instead of the 11% now.

Would those two moves leave us worse off? Only if you assume people are making rational, informed decisions now. That assumption is the failure of your argument. You can try and convince me otherwise, but I doubt you can.

Now, I will not try to argue that the government can do a better job of making those decisions than the market can (see above - the government subsidy program is the problem with food - AND YET, conservatives often contradict themselves by saying that we NEED the cheap food, yet we don't need the subsidies that produce them!). I believe in markets. But I do believe the government can provide information and use tax policy to create honest markets. They just don't succeed all that often. That's a different argument.

Rob Kremer said...


Here's where I differ from you: I DO think it is a no-brainer that we shouldn't discontinue coal as a source of electricity and shift to more expensive sources. And I will bet any amount of money that the vast majority of Oregonians, if asked if they want to make that trade, would reject it.

Guess who such things hurt? The poor. Why are liberals always hurting the poor with their policies? Time and again, they seem to say: "Sure, our environmental policies, our minimum wage policies, you name it, will hurt you financially. But we have this welfare program that we will give you....."

Same goes for your food supply statement. Now, I am all for getting rid of subsidies. But you suggest it would be a positive thing if we spent 60% more on food than we do now. That can only mean intentional policies that make food more expensive. (Not just getting rid of subsidies - there is no way subsidies explain the fact food prices are lower now. It has largely come from increases in farm productivity brought on by mechanization and genetic engineering.)

I think the many hundreds of thousands of folks who can barely afford their food now would think that a rather bad idea.

Huck said...

Rob -

You're probably right that a majority would choose not to shut down the coal plant. That much I'll give you. But a lot of people who don't have that information would likely gain some awareness of the impact that their lights and AC cause, and might modify their behavior to some extent. My point, which you chose to ignore and assume away to stay comfortable in your beliefs, is only that people are not making informed decisions, so they aren't making rational decisions. Conservatives are working in a world of assumptions that don't hold up.

And on the food issue, you're just plain wrong in your conclusion, despite being right in your facts. Yes, mechanization and seed technology have created enormous yield gains. BUT - what food are we talking about? Corn and wheat sell for far less on the market because of the subsidy. Take away the subsidy and production would fall and the equilibrium price would be substantially higher, despite the technology. The Nixon administration created the subsidies for stability to the farmers and to the buyers. The subsidies, however, don't just distort the price - they distort the products available at the supermarket and fast food restaurants. Take away the subsidies, and junk food prices would go way up (probably 10%). This does not require "intentional policies" to spend more on food. But yes, we'd all be better off if we bought grass-finished beef rather than feedlot beef. No question about it. Irrefutable. Same with chicken. And we'd all be better off if we ate, as a nation, slightly less meat (I'm not a vegetarian, but I know I eat too much meat myself). But those are choices that should be left to INFORMED consumers. People who can't afford food should not be faced with choosing between subsidized unhealthy food and unsubsidized healthy food.

How, Rob, do we get INFORMED consumers? That's the question conservatives should answer if they want to maintain a market driven economy.

And finally, Rob, don't just lump me in with all liberals. We're not all the same. I'm driven by economic theory, not ideology, regardless what you think of those theories. I'm with you on the minimum wage, subsidies, charter schools. I'm also probably more middle-road than most liberals in that, while I believe in a social safety net, I do think the poor should pay taxes into those programs if they have income. Yes, we disagree substantially on the value of environmental damage and risk-factors, but you just can't seem to fathom that those values are based in reality. I'll say it again, I'm low hanging fruit for conservatives. If you can't change some minds in the young middle, then you're going to wither on the vine as a political force as the next generation comes of age.

Rob Kremer said...

I am totally with on on ending farm subsidies of all types. I've been complaining for years about the fact Republicans have always defended them, extended them. No excuse for that - as you say, it distorts the market in very harmful ways.

If ending subsidies raises the price of junk food, fine by me.

I disagree, however, about consumers and information and rationality. I think consumers are, in the main, rational in their consumption decisions. That is, they use their limited dollars to maximize their well being as they define it. Everyone defines their own well being differently, which is what makes markets exist.

Does every consumer have 100% of all information about what they consume? Of course not. It would not be rational to attempt to do so, even if it were possible.

I have no idea where the wood in my pencil came from, or who manufactured the rubber for the eraser. For all I know, it could have been in an Indonesian sweat shop.

Am I supposed to know everything about it before I can buy it?

This is, admittedly, an intentionally absurd example, but it applies to the larger argument. What you wish consumers "knew" about coal fired electricity plants such as Boardman, just maybe, they already pretty much are aware of and just don't care.

Huck said...

Rob, I concur. I would like to clarify that my argument wasn't so much directed at individual choices, but at macro outcomes. Individuals allocate their time as they do their money, and I can't begrudge somebody their choices in food or energy usage whether they're informed or uninformed. I also can't begrudge them spending their downtime watching football instead of reading Omnivore's Dilemma. Many people don't care, and that's their right. But their individually rational decision does not necessarily lead to a macro-efficient outcome.

In the end, I can't defend my wacko liberal brethren who advocate big government solutions all the time. I so wish they had better understanding of the economic consequences of their policies, because I usually want the outcome they're seeking (just not the remedy they prescribe). That's why I usually fault my own team, not conservatives, because we have the burden of persuasion. Libs have been great at identifying problems and then knee-jerking a response. If we could only be more patient, most of the problems solve themselves (through the market), and Libs would have way less flops on their record.

Good day, Rob. Always remember there are a few Libs that don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

PS - slow work day. Lots of new competition in the courier biz, and not as much work.

MAX Redline said...

I noticed a couple of days ago in The 0 that NW Energy Coalition is pushing to have PGE shut down Boardman (of course, the Coalition is all about "clean, renewable" energy).

Prior to the closure of the Trojan nuke plant, Oregon was a net exporter of electric power, which is no longer the case. Now the push is on (yet again) to close a facility which provides nearly half of the region's power. The Coalition would additionally like to see the removal of hydro dams; claiming that they aren't "clean, renewable" sources of energy.

Although nuclear technology has become very clean and stable (I believe OSU recently spun off a company that produces and sells small-scale reactors globally - but not in the USA), nukes are off the table. Are we to derive all of our energy needs from massive wind farms and solar arrays?

Likely not, as environmeddlists are increasingly fighting these technologies as well as wave arrays. Where is the power for our electric cars to be obtained? As the Governator recently opined, "If we can't put solar arrays in the Mojave, then where the hell can we put them?" Or words to that effect.

In this case, the Governator is correct: environmeddlists are opposed to staging solar arrays in the Mojave desert due to the environmental impact.

They increasingly oppose wind towers not because of bird strikes, but because the cavitation caused by the spinning blades attracts bats for as yet unknown reasons. While relatively few of the animals are directly impacted by the blades, the cavitation causes the bats' lungs to explode as a result of the sudden drop in air pressure (barotrauma).

So it looks as though coal, nukes, wind, solar, and hydro are all out.

That being the case, it seems reasonable to ask what is left?