Jeff Jacoby, a conservative Boston Globe columnist, wrote a column the other day castigating the call for automobiles with higher fuel efficiency (The Lion’s response is here).
Today he comes back with his promised Part 2 to prove his case that high fuel efficiency leads to greater demand for oil.
"It seems obvious that rising efficiency in cars, furnaces, and lawn mowers should, in the aggregate, significantly curb demand for energy," write Peter Huber and Mark Mills in "The Bottomless Well," their perceptive 2005 book on the supply, demand, and pricing of energy. "Sad to say, however . . . efficiency doesn’t lower demand, it raises it."
Why? Because improvements in fuel economy effectively make fuel less expensive, and when costs fall, demand tends to rise. As driving has grown cheaper in recent decades, people have done more of it – choosing to drive to work instead of taking the bus, for example, or buying a second car, or moving to a house with a longer commute, or sending the kids to college with cars of their own. Between 1983 and 2001, data from the Energy Information Administration show, the number of annual vehicle-miles driven by the average American household rose from 16,800 vehicle-miles to more than 23,000.
This counterintuitive phenomenon – greater efficiency leads to greater consumption – is sometimes called the Jevons Paradox, after the 19th-century mathematician who first articulated it. In his 1865 book, "The Coal Question," Jevons explained that more efficient use of coal would increase the demand for coal. "It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption," he wrote. "The very contrary is the truth."
Does this mean you shouldn’t drive a more fuel-efficient automobile? Not at all: If you crave better mileage or you want to make an environmental statement or you think a hybrid can save you money, by all means get a more efficient car. Just don’t expect to see fuel consumption decrease. New technology is often wondrous, but that’s one miracle it can’t perform.
Well, of course cheaper fuel increases demand. But Jacoby leaves out a major factor in the demand increase in the United States.
…Congress enacted the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in 1975, following the Arab oil embargo. At the time, US oil imports amounted to a little more than one-third of consumption. Today we import two-thirds. After more than three decades of CAFE standards, heightened environmental awareness, and steady improvements in fuel efficiency and engine technology, America’s demand for oil is greater than ever. In 1975, highway fuel consumption amounted to 109 billion gallons, according to the Federal Highway Administration. By 2006 it had climbed to 175 billion.
What Jacoby conveniently doesn’t mention in his columns is that the population of the United States since 1975 has increased by about 100,000,000 people(that’s one hundred million for the numerical illiterates). But of course that had nothing to do with increasing demand, did it, Jacoby? Three hundred million people use a hell of a lot more oil than two hundred million. That fact seems to have escaped Jacoby.
If the population had remained stable across this period at about two hundred million, and truly efficient autos had been put fully into play, yes, demand would likely have increased as people a) drove somewhat more and b) new uses were found for oil. But Jacoby chalks up the entire increase in demand to the outdated and pretty much ignored CAFE standards of 1975 and to increased fuel efficiency.
In fact it’s not unlikely that had the government insisted on highly fuel efficient vehicles back then (when the rest of the world was already way ahead of American auto manufacturers in that regard) we might have had considerably lower demand across the decades since 1975, despite the growth of population and technology.
Let’s us all pause a moment to reflect on President Ronnie Raygun ordering that the solar panels be ripped off the roof of the White House in a fit of Republican Conservatism. He also ended the tax credits President Carter had created to encourage the use of solar energy. Reagan thus crippled the solar energy industry for decades. Reagan’s actions resulted from the sort of thinking that Jacoby apparently admires. The United States and the world are today paying a horrible price for what Conservative Republicans… oh, hell, any Republican… call ‘thinking’.
Jacoby’s agenda is typically Conservative. Let’s not change anything, let’s ignore science and evidence, let’s ignore inconvenient facts, and let’s go back to the good old days when white men ruled, greed was good, and everybody knew their place, and nothing would ever change, and God would save the world for rich white people.
Yes, and let’s bring back hand-pumped fire wagons to save our homes and cities from the flames. The Lion is sure that Jacoby will be only too happy to volunteer.