Dim Bulbs

I live in Concord, Massachusetts – the town made famous by the brave militiamen who fired the shot heard round the world on April 19, 1775.  A couple months ago Concord was in the news again when our Town Meeting voted to outlaw the sale of bottled water. That vote was an embarrassing shot in the foot but revealing. Many of today’s Concordians have little faith in the market or in their neighbors’ ability to make their own decisions. And please don’t suggest that the Town Meeting expresses the will of the people.  It is an easily and frequently manipulated form of government that serves the special interests of those willing and able to pay an exorbitant and unnecessary poll tax in the form of two to three long nights of listening to uniformed debate among scientific poseurs.  That a group of (perhaps) well-meaning folks are able to pass inane and unenforceable vanity legislation that bans bottled water is evidence of the system’s susceptibility to gaming and being hijacked.

Unfortunately, the ranks of those who would micro-manage our lives is growing. Concord has empowered a group to study how best we can foster a sustainable lifestyle in our community. The group has inflated its apparent profile by recruiting like-minded allies from those political precincts that believe no man’s home is his castle. A recent article (manifesto?) in the local weekly by our sustaining leader was full of over wrought statements about things we can no longer do if we want to sustain “our precious planet.”  These unsustainable sins include the usual suspects; burning fossil fuels, installing incandescent bulbs, and of course buying produce from large, remote farms. This litany of neo-Malthusian dogma confirms the observation by the great British biologist Sir Peter Medawar that:

“…the spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.”

Almost every prediction by neo-Malthusians has proven pathetically inaccurate. Paul Ehrlich, the late author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb, prophesized that increasing population would outstrip resources and lead to food riots. Ooops, instead we became too obese to riot over food. Ehrlich was so certain that inexorable scarcity would drive resource prices up that he unwisely accepted a bet with economist Julian Simon that prices on a group of metals (selected by Ehrlich) would increase dramatically; of course he was wrong – all of the metal prices went down. Similar catastrophic warnings from groups such as The Club of Rome, that in its 1972 report The Limits to Growth, made dire predictions about the exhaustion of 19 essential minerals that have yet to materialize.

Worse than having continually to prove them wrong scientifically and intellectually are the consequences of the actions the neo-Malthusians do manage to enact to save us from our stupidity in order to inflict upon us theirs. The earth is running out of oil, cars burn a lot of gasoline, the people don’t appreciate the need to conserve and so Car Average Fuel Economy standards are necessary. Never mind that CAFÉ grossly distorts the automobile market and undermines U.S. manufacturers who are forced to make and sell, at a loss, vehicles that people won’t buy at a price that would make them profitable. The neo-Malthusians, never ones to consider or admit their culpability, blame the demise of GM and Chrysler on the unremitting stupidity of corporate management. If only those companies had made more fuel-efficient unprofitable cars they could have avoided the embarrassment of bankruptcy! It wasn’t the 13 MPG (city) Chevy Silverado or Cadillac Escalade that drove GM off the road. That was accomplished by the snappy 25 MPG Chevy Aero and its predecessor Geo, cars so cramped and ugly that even neo-Malthusians wouldn’t buy them at break-even prices. Prices on those cars have to be lower than cost because car buyers are too stupid to properly discount their fuel cost savings and the priceless  satisfaction that comes from sustaining the earth by driving a car that looks like those circus vehicles from which climb a dozen clowns. Neo-Malthusians seem to prefer Volvos – an unsustainable car soon to be made in China.

Why do neo-Malthusians behave this way? There are, I believe, three primary reasons. The first is given by Medawar; they cannot (or, charitably, will not) understand the dynamics of markets and technology. Today’s ratios and correlations are not destiny. The future is not a straight-line projection of the recent or current situation but the result of complex dynamical interactions among existing and unforeseen factors that are beyond our capacity to fully comprehend. This was the analytical failure of the original Malthus and his heirs continue to make it. In almost very case the neo-Malthusian argument is simplistic (“it’s obvious that… there is only so much…”) and does not survive analysis. When economists prove that a cherished policy like forced recycling wastes resources and damages the environment, the neo-Malthusians often react with ad hominem slurs.

Second, neo-Malthusians believe that they are smarter than the market or society as a whole. They cannot appreciate or accept that a largely self-directed system can properly price and allocate resources. So, for example, the Germans pour billions of Euros into a misconceived solar energy industry. We are busily reducing demand for real jobs by subsidizing putative green jobs and are almost certain to repeat Spain’s experience of destroying two jobs for each created in its subsidized solar industry.

Third, they fail to appreciate the potential of people to solve creatively and positively problems. If no one is smarter than you and you can’t see any other solution, then there can’t be one. As Simon pointed out, “The ultimate resource is people—skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all.” Better to ban soft drinks than to embrace the amazing potential of genetic engineering to produce better, more nutritious, less costly and, yes, more sustainable food sources. Restrictions on progress deny us the benefit of human creativity in exchange for the conceit of some poorly educated activist or bureaucrat.

We are on the way to imposing a fate similar to car buyers on people who buy light bulbs. In a few years the incandescent light bulb, invented or perfected by Thomas Edison in 1880, will, like heroin, be illegal to purchase and perhaps to possess. This will impose unnecessary costs on customers and the environment. Removing the incandescent bulb from the portfolio of lighting sources will increase lighting costs; there are several places in my home where light is needed very occasionally and it would take a few decades to amortize the additional cost of a compact fluorescent bulb. By anointing the CFL, the competitive pressures to improve them and to reduce their costs are reduced. CFLs are not an unmitigated environmental boon – they require more resources, including energy, to produce than do incandescent bulbs and they currently contain mercury which makes some people concerned about exposure in the event of breakage.

The mercury fear may be allayed by the development of solid-state light sources such as LEDs that are on the horizon. But LEDs are so efficient that they will likely stimulate greatly the demand for electricity. As reported in a recent Economist story, research by Jeff Tsao of Sandia National Laboratories published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics found that if the real price of electricity remains constant, the number of megalumen-hours consumed by the average person will rise tenfold, from 20 to 202 and require twice the quantity of electricity to operate.

How can this happen? As any economist will tell you, decisions are made on the margin. A person consumes a lighting program defined by the rate of lighting (lumens), volume (square footage illuminated) and duration  (hours of illumination) and as the marginal cost of expanding that program decreases relative to other goods, that person will increase their consumption of light.

In the end we, and perhaps even the neo-Malthusians, will see the light. I, however, am not waiting for the LED to supplant the CFL but instead am depending on old-fashioned economic phenomena of incentives and trade to keep me supplied with evil incandescent bulbs. I am very sure that the Mohawk Indians or someone like them will soon branch out from selling over-taxed cigarettes and enter the incandescent lighting business.

Posted by Bob


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