On Tuesday, President Obama gave a speech announcing his new agenda to combat climate change. As part of his efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the President and his administration plan on releasing a series of energy efficiency regulations, supposedly with the intention of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The problem is, the vast majority of the benefits from many energy efficiency rules have nothing to do with reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and this is according to the government’s own estimates. Instead, agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) are eliminating options for consumers, and then counting the loss to consumers as a benefit of regulating.
How do they do this? It all has to do with a relatively new field of social science known as behavioral economics. You can think of behavioral economics as the intersection of psychology and economics. Behavioral economists believe that people exhibit many biases that cause them to systematically act in ways that are out of line with their true preferences. In a lab situation, there are many examples of such biases that have been demonstrated. For example, a person buying a home may bid one price, but if she is selling the same house, she may require a higher price, implying she values the same object differently depending on whether the object belongs to her or not. Or, people may value objects differently depending on time. For instance, a person might choose to receive $100 today over $110 tomorrow, yet at the same time pass on $100 a year from now in exchange for $110 in a year and one day, implying the person is more impatient today than he sees himself being in the future.
As the chart below demonstrates, the Department of Energy recently finalized a regulation related to microwave ovens, and nearly 80% of the benefits of the rule stemmed, not from protecting the environment or public health, but from saving consumers money by preventing them from buying the products they would choose otherwise. DOE does not seem to understand why consumers might choose to pay a relatively low price today for a product that is not very energy efficient, when this person could buy a more expensive energy efficient product that will save money over the life of the product through lower electricity bills. From an economics perspective, DOE does not believe this behavior is rational, hence it is like one of the behavioral biases described above, and in many cases DOE has decided to ban the products it doesn’t like in order to protect consumers from themselves.
Energy Efficiency Benefits from DOE Microwave Ovens Regulation*
Federal agencies are ignoring the fact that consumers may value other attributes of products aside from energy and fuel efficiency. With automobiles, consumers may prefer larger and safer cars, to smaller more fuel efficient vehicles. Restaurants may prefer light bulbs that raise electric bills slightly every month, but whose warm glow creates an ambiance that customers enjoy. And in the case of microwaves and laundry machines, it may be that machines that use more energy simply work better at their stated purpose. And it’s not just microwave ovens. DOE, and other agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, make this same type of assumption with other regulations, like rules impacting commercial clothes washers, light bulbs, and fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. Agencies even assume businesses are behaving in this manner. Does anyone honestly believe that trucking companies aren’t taking fuel efficiency into account when buying new fleets? Or that laundromat owners don’t consider electricity costs when purchasing new equipment? It seems highly implausible, but agencies are assuming just that.
For decades, agencies have been required to identify a market failure or other systemic problem that exists before intervening in the marketplace with a regulation. Market failures include things like a lack of competition, a lack of consumer information, or costs that spill over onto the public as the result of a private transaction. Now, agencies like DOE have begun to expand the definition of market failure to include what they deem to be personal failures on the part of consumers.
So why are agencies doing this? One reason may be because the environmental benefits alone aren’t enough to justify the costs of some regulations. Claiming additional benefits helps agencies justify an inefficient policy, and keeps government programs continuing to employ regulators. Agencies have other ways to make the benefits of rules appear greater too. In the case of the microwave rule, of the small portion of benefits related to carbon dioxide reductions, most will be captured by citizens of foreign countries, with only a small fraction going to US citizens. Counting benefits to foreigners makes the benefits of rules appear greater, even though agencies are asked to only consider benefits to the United States in most cases.
Another reason we may be getting these types of rules is the rules may really be intended to benefit special interest groups more than consumers. A manufacturer that is already producing an energy efficient product may capture market share by getting the products of its competitors banned. Or manufacturers may simply want to force consumers to buy a more expensive product, or replace old products with new ones, while eliminating the possibility of a competitor undercutting them by selling a cheaper product in the marketplace.
Reducing Carbon Dioxide emissions in order to combat climate change may be a noble goal, but recent energy efficiency regulations are unlikely to get us there. Rather than overriding consumer choice, and counting this loss to consumers as a benefit, DOE and other agencies should give the American people a more honest assessment of the benefits of their rules.
* Source: Department of Energy, “Technical Support Document: Energy Efficiency Program for Consumer Products and Commercial and Industrial Equipment: Residential Microwave Ovens – Stand-By-Power,” (Table 1.2.1.), May 2013. Calculated using a 3 percent discount rate. Assumes 15 percent of reductions in CO2 emissions are attributed to the United States. This is the midpoint between 7 percent and 23 percent, the range estimated by the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, “Technical Support Document, Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis under Executive Order 12866,” February 2010.