On Monday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution acknowledging "the unprecedented challenges of Peak Oil." The resolution recommended the adoption of an Oil Depletion Protocol that would give the world an accurate sense of exactly how much oil is left and how fast we are using it up, and asked the city to conduct a comprehensive plan of action. Oh, and it asked the mayor to fund the plan.
Local peak oil activists and renewable energy geeks are excited. The 10-0 vote by the board makes San Francisco the first major American city to officially recognize that a major energy crunch could be coming and we'd better do something about it. But the first thing I thought about was a New York Times opinion piece this morning written by an economist: "State Governments Overreach in Taking on Problems Best Solved at the National Level."
Examples cited by the economist, Robert Frank, included the much-publicized universal healthcare plan passed by the Massachusetts Legislature, California's stem-cell funding initiative, and various state efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. In each case, notes Frank, from an economically utilitarian point of view, action at the state level makes little sense. Massachusetts could be overwhelmed by a wave of uninsured citizens migrating in from other states. California voters are unlikely to get their money's worth from advances in stem-cell research -- instead, the benefits of those advances will be spread out over a nation -- and a world -- that didn't pay for them.
As for climate change, "A state that regulates greenhouse gases thus bears the entire cost of the reduction but receives only a minuscule fraction of the benefit. That fact is bound to limit political support for curbs strong enough to matter. As economists have long emphasized, effective environmental regulation requires national, or even international, collective action."
Frank's point "is not that states are foolish for having extended their reach. Again, the federal government has completely dropped the ball in these domains. The recent state actions may not be the most efficient ways of dealing with our most pressing problems. But they are an unmistakable signal of voter impatience with ineffective government at the federal level."
Cato Institute libertarian dogma notwithstanding, there are good reasons for a federal government that takes responsibility for action on big problems. Leaving it to the states, or cities, or even individuals, is just plain dumb.