Krauthammer’s Fact-Free Foray into Energy Issues

Charles Krauthammer’s The Tax-Free Lunch shows again the Washington Post’s willingness to publish fact-free OpEds.  Like Andrew Ferguson’s fact-free attack on Al Gore (and the Post’s lack of apology for publishing this trash), Krauthammer takes great liberty with reality, speaking commonly known urban legends, to confuse rather than enlighten.

Let’s take a look at Krauthammer’s liberties with truth as he works to undercut movement forward on energy issues.

You get what you pay for.

Actually, this aphorism is often false as too many who buy health insurance and face Murder by Spreadsheet.  We could play with it, but these words are cute and meaningless.

When you build lighter cars with more fuel efficiency, you know that ultimately — even with the best (let alone Chinese) technology — safety is compromised.

How can we say this politely?  Okay, THIS IS NOT TRUE.  Got it, Chuck, you are stating commonly held ideas that are, well, wrong.  All things being equal (safety features, design, materials), seems to make sense that heavier / larger would be safer (at least for the driver / passengers of the bigger vehicle), but (as is all too often the truth), all things are not equal.

Perhaps Krauthammer (or a Post fact-checker) could fruitfully spend a few minutes reading Small Cars Are Safer Than SUVs

The above comes from Increasing Vehicle Fuel Economy without Sacrificing Safety (pdf) which was prepared for the International Council on Clean Transportation.

The public, automakers, and policymakers have long worried about trade-offs between increased fuel economy in motor vehicles and reduced safety. The conclusion of a broad group of experts on safety and fuel economy in the auto sector: No trade-off is required. There are a wide variety of technologies and approaches available to advance vehicle fuel economy that have no effect on vehicle safety. Conversely, there are many technologies and approaches available to advance vehicle safety that are not detrimental to vehicle fuel economy.

In case that is not clear enough for putting Krauthammer’s mendacity in context, let us see if this would provide some clarity:

experts’ studies reveal important new conclusions about fuel economy and safety, including:

  • Vehicle fuel economy can be increased without affecting safety, and vice versa.
  • Reducing the weight and height of the heaviest SUVs and pickup trucks will simultaneously increase both their fuel economy and overall safety.
  • Advanced materials can decouple size from mass (weight), creating important new for increasing both fuel economy and safety without compromising functionality.

(By the way, this is not the first time “experts” have come to this conclusion.  See, for example, NRC: Effectiveness and Impact of CAFE Standards.)

Krauthammer works with urban legend, not fact, as he seeks to say that there is an unholy tradeoff that Americans face:  certain risk to safety today (this false risk from smaller or lighter vehicles) versus an uncertain risk tomorrow (Global Warming, economic impact of imported oil).

By the way, as an aside, of course there is the real issue that lowering the weight of McSUVs would improve the safety for everyone else on the road.

Now we may, as a society, decide that the trade-off is worth it.

Krauthammer states this “trade-off”.  Let us, again, quote the automotive experts: No trade-off is required.

Krauthammer: But what we cannot deny is that there are trade-offs.

Let us, again, quote the automotive experts: No trade-off is required.

Krauthammer: What is fundamentally wrong with the energy bill the Senate passed last week and with the debate leading up to it is the chronic, almost pathological, refusal to recognize that there are such trade-offs.

Sorry for the broken record, but let us, again, quote the automotive experts: No trade-off is required.

Back to Chuck …

Look at the major provisions of the bill. First, a mandated 40 percent increase in fuel-efficiency standards for automobile companies. What’s wrong with that? Apart from the safety issue, there is the issue of cost. Car prices will rise. That could in turn drive one or all of the Big Three U.S. auto companies, all reeling financially, into insolvency.

Wow. 40 percent. Sounds so huge. Let’s remember that this is by 2020, so it is less than 2 percent year. And, “apart from the safety issue”, do we need to quote experts again?

But “Car prices will rise”.  This is an interesting question.  What is “price”?  Should we be thinking about the Cost to Buy or the Cost to Own?  If the ‘purchase price’ goes up but operating savings pay for it in a short period, is the cost higher?  And, well, there are so many things that drive car costs higher that become “standard” ever so quickly, from seat belts to radios, air bags to reclining (adjustable) front seats.  

And, well, we should all be shaking. Increased fuel efficiency standards will driving the US auto companies into ‘insolvency’?  Not their bad designs, bad investment decisions, and inadequate vision for the future other than pursuing ever larger, ever less efficient vehicles in their McSUVing of America?

Let us return to Krauthammer:

That might be a worthy trade-off. This country desperately needs better gas mileage. But it does not come free. The most efficient and equitable way to both increase mileage and reduce gasoline use (increased mileage alone can induce people, perversely, to drive more) is with a new gasoline tax, refunded by means of reduced payroll taxes to make it revenue neutral. But there is absolutely no congressional or administration support for that, because it is too honest and open an acknowledgment that there is no free lunch. The reason Congress loves corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards is precisely that they hide the cost — in the sticker price of a new car. Whatever blame there is for the unfairness of life — that energy efficiency is not free — goes to the auto company rather than the mandating body, namely Congress.

Actually, Chuck, “energy efficiency is not free”, it is actually profitable.  Study after study …  actual implementation after implementation has shown this to be the case.  Spend just a few minutes with Amory Lovins and others at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and the firehose of information will begin to wipe away the conception that energy efficiency is somehow not smart policy, smart business, just simply smart.  With how wasteful American energy use is, “negawatts” (electricity savings through efficiency) are almost always cheaper than purchasing new power. According to Winning the Oil Endgame

Cars and light trucks, projected to burn 46% of U.S. oil in 2025, can save over two-thirds of their fuel by artfully combining today’s best techniques—without compromise, with better safety and pep, at attractive cost, and with competitive advantage. [p 44]

What is the nightmare of CAFE standards? What is that Krauthammer is screaming about?  A government mandate?  What is he advocating?  Using the market?

most efficient and equitable way to both increase mileage and reduce gasoline use … is with a new gasoline tax

Actually … let us be clear … the truth of this statement (even if I support a Global Warming Impact Fee) is unclear and uncertain, at best.  But, let us take this analogy elsewhere, to one example.  Thirty years ago, the average new refrigerator used about 1750 kilowatt hours per year.  Now, with better features (more performance), the average new refrigerator uses about 500 kilowatt hours per year.  Did manufacturers do this out of the goodness of their hearts? Did market-based incentives of increased electricity prices drive these improvements?  Does it surprise you that this was brought about through government mandates?

Now, to be clear, the 35 mpg by 2020 is a weak move forward, in my opinion.  Richardson’s Energy Revolution calls for 50 mpg.  And, even that might be understated where we should and can go.

We need to turn, even for a short moment, to another part of Krauthammer’s mendacity.

Mercifully, the Senate failed to pass a third proposed mandate from on high, a decree that power companies produce 15 percent of electricity from alternative sources by 2020. Because solar is expensive, wind is inconsistent in places such as the South, and geothermal is not exactly bubbling up in most states of the union, this mandate would have meant higher electricity prices.

There are so many things here.  Well, “higher electricity prices”, cost is only to be considered in terms of the price at the plug rather than in the mountaintops removed, lungs filled with pollution, mercury in the oceans.  But, in addition, renewable power is heading toward a cost target that is not just competitive but perhaps lower than fossil fuel options.  (Not just wind, but even large-scale concentrating solar power (CSP).) And, well, Renewable Power Standards (RPS) are just an incredibly smart thing and, like the 35 mpg, a 15 percent RPS understates where we should and can be heading by 2020.

Krauthammer finishes

I have no objection to paying more to reduce our dependency on foreign energy. But it is hard to conceive of a more politically dishonest and economically inefficient way to do it than with mandates that make private industry do Congress’s dirty work, hide the true cost of energy efficiency and perpetuate the fantasy of the tax-free lunch.

Oh, Chuck, you write so well.  And, you prove again that they Washington Post is ready and willing to publish a column that has a fact-free basis for its conclusions.

But, who are you calling “dishonest”, Chuck?

Energy Smart

Ask yourself:  Are you doing your part to ENERGIZE AMERICA?


2 responses to “Krauthammer’s Fact-Free Foray into Energy Issues

  1. Couple of points that support Krauthammer, namely that the safest vehicle in your chart is the most expensive, and that the occupants of a Chevy Suburban are nearly twice as protected as the occupants of a Honda Civic. Making a car safer for the impactee is not a matter of mass, it’s a matter of crumple zones and the materials the windshield/hood/fenders are made of. People don’t buy cars based on safety based on what happens to the people they hit, they buy them based on what will protect them. Strange that the Chevy Tahoe does not do a good job, while the Suburban does. They’re built on similar frames, maybe the extra mass of the Suburban has something to do with it.

    There are safety measures that can and should be taken, but efficiency AND safety in and of itself will likely cost more money. When you have to rely on this formulation…

    But “Car prices will rise”. This is an interesting question. What is “price”?

    …you’ve already lost Joe Sixpack. My hybrid is more efficient than the car it replaced, but it’s also going to take 5-7 years (optimally, maybe longer) to recoup the difference in lower fuel costs compared to just buying the 4-cylinder version without the volty parts. Car companies know this, which is why they always compare to the power-comparable 6-cylinder version, which makes the payoff shorter. No amount of questioning “what is price” will change this, and it’s rather simple math for people to figure this out for themselves. The fact that the average American is used to buying a new car in less time than it will take me to see any direct fiscal benefit (other than the income tax credit, which is soon to expire) does not bode well.

    Basically, Americans will buy the new 40%-more-fuel-efficient cars when the old ones wear out, and the cars they buy will show probably the same spectrum of IHSA crash results as they do now. They will just pay more for the privilege, and as such they’ll use incrementally less of the services that automakers provide.

    And while they will burn less fuel, they won’t really appreaciate it. If they do appreciate it, they will show their appreciation by driving more and using…more fuel. The fact that increased CAFE standards since the 1980s have led us to an even more car-ified existence should be self-evident, as is our increased oil consumption despite (or possibly, because of) increased efficiency.

  2. Oh, and you sidestepped the gasoline tax issue.

    Krauthammer is completely correct that if you want to reduce the use of something, raising its price is the way to do that in a market economy.

    The government does not have the stones to do this, that is also correct. In fact, state governments are already moving on the other side of market forces to artificially lower gasoline prices. Governments can be counted on to do what’s popular, not what’s right. They are in this case foisting off the issue from the consumer (where it belongs) to the automaker, and rather than making the biggest consumers of fuel pay the most with a gas tax, they’re gigging everyone who purchases a car — and the automakers and the unions who work with the automakers most of all.

    Krauthammer is right that Congress will not be around to hear complaints about the increased cost of more efficient vehicles, or the safety concerns of vehicles that get better mileage but don’t cost any more. The way to fix this situation is with a gasoline tax that discourages consumption — then the consumers will happily buy more efficient vehicles.

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