Paul Krugman in the P-G: The Decapitation of Chicken Little
Professor Krugman is a "soft socialist," someone who believes the government should manage major aspects of our lives. More precisely, I think, he believes it should do so with the advice of certain academic consultants, particularly him.
In the lead paragraph of his column ("It's pretty easy being green") he says: "The factual debate about whether global warming is real is, or at least should be, over: The question now is what to do about it."
Not so fast, Krugman: The debate about global warming may be over in Al Gore's brain -- and perhaps even in the craniums of all right-thinking Princetonians. Recently, however, 17,000 scientists subscribed to the view that global warming, as generally understood, is not a certainty.
Remember a generation ago when people like Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich announced that debate over the "population explosion" (or the "population bomb") was over? Essentially, the world of the future would see humanity tightly packed together, something like the entire population of Des Moines, Iowa residing in a single elevator.
Of course, the population explosion is a quaint footnote in 20th century history. No one talks anymore about Paul Ehrlich's warnings -- aside from a few trivia buffs like me. Now, you heard it here first: global warming will soon join Paul Ehrlich (and Ralph Nader and Al Gore) in what Karl Marx called "the dustbin of history."
In other words, Krugman's column gets off to a bad start on global warming, this decade's version of crying wolf. The last vestige of a scoundrel is to try winning a debate by pretending none exists.
The main point of the Princeton professor's column is that we must follow the example of California. He tells us "Californians use a third less energy than the rest of us."
For those of us who recognize that Californians have a temperate climate while the rest of us don't, the state's achievement isn't exactly earth-shaking. Recently, the temperature in Los Angeles was 75 degrees in California, while it was 5 degrees in Pittsburgh, and I admit we Steel City types were using a lot more energy than people at their pools in LA.
Krugman explains California's below-average use of energy this way: "In some cases conservation was mandated directly, through energy efficiency standards for appliances and rules governing new construction. Also, regulated power companies were given new incentives to promote conservation, via rule changes that 'decoupled' their profits from the amount of electricity they sold."
I find both these sentences amusing, mainly because of their attempt to avoid economic realities. In fact, people support energy efficiency standards only when it's in their economic interests to do so. Also, companies certainly will encourage conservation when you fatten their profits for doing so.
It's all called capitalism -- a term that usually evokes fear and loathing in Paul Krugman. He emphasizes that California's supposed strength in conservation has nothing to do with 21st century deregulation of the energy markets.
Then, curiously, he admits: "Yes, a variety of state actions has the effect of raising energy prices. In the early 1970s, the price of electricity in California was close to the national average. Today, it's about 50 percent higher."
The semi-mysterious "state actions" turn out to be mainly a move toward free markets in energy. I wish Krugman, an economist, would reflect on something economists call the price-elasticity of demand. That means: when something costs more, people buy less.
It also means that the factor bringing supply and demand into balance is price. State or federal regulations don't really do it. Hectoring people about the need for conservation doesn't do it. A President's wearing a sweater on a national address doesn't do it. Prices, allowed to rise or fall in response to supply-demand factors, do it.
Price-elasticity explains -- much better than Krugman does -- why Californians are consuming somewhat less energy per capita than formerly. When something costs more, people tend to waste less of it.
The amount of energy used by Californians has little to do with good intentions. It has a great deal to do with the state's climate -- compared, say, to frigid International Falls and muggy Miami -- and energy prices. It's a reflection of location (location! location!) and capitalism.
I wish Krugman had said that, but he's never going to give a simple explanation when a complicated one is available. Why does the P-G continue running him? One might as well ask why a chicken runs around with his head cut off.
Note: Stephen R. Maloney, Ph.D. never taught at Princeton University (he's available at the right price), but he did write for two decades on energy economics for Phillips Petroleum, Gulf Oil, and various public utilities in the U.S. and overseas.