Are clean shirts and energy efficiency only for the rich?

Some new washing machines don't work very well. Is it the government's fault?

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 11, 2007 10:52PM (UTC)
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"Energy-efficiency really means that the government is going to choose how white your shirts are gonna be," expostulates Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University who co-writes the "Marginal Revolution" blog with Tyler Cowen. He's riffing off a June Consumer Reports appraisal of washing machines that found that cheap energy-efficient washers did a bad job of getting out those nasty stains. From Consumer Reports:

Not so long ago you could count on most washers to get your clothes very clean. Not anymore. Our latest tests found huge performance differences among machines. Some left our stain-soaked swatches nearly as dirty as they were before washing. For best results, you'll have to spend $900 or more.

What happened? As of January, the U.S. Department of Energy has required washers to use 21 percent less energy, a goal we wholeheartedly support. But our tests have found that traditional top-loaders, those with the familiar center-post agitators, are having a tough time wringing out those savings without sacrificing cleaning ability, the main reason you buy a washer.

For Tabarrok, who leans decidedly to the libertarian side of the spectrum, the data point on washing machines is sufficient grist to undermine the very notion that the federal government should attempt to mandate energy efficiency. He's not alone in this view. The New York Times' John Tierney seized upon the same Consumer Reports tidbit several months ago, and his gist was identical: Ham-handed government regulation is making life worse for consumers! Only the rich can afford to be environmentally conscious!


That's routine stuff from Tierney. But now that Tabarrok has joined the bandwagon, we can consider it a full-fledged meme: Energy efficiency equals a degradation in the quality of life, especially for poor people.

Before challenging this point of view directly, let me hasten to acknowledge the self-evident truth that yes, tradeoffs do exist and there ain't no free lunch. I personally have a top-of-the-line, front-loading, energy-efficient washer dryer combo. It works great. I also have a bottom-of-the-barrel energy-efficient dishwasher. It is the worst major appliance it has ever been my displeasure to be acquainted with. I am not sure, but I suspect, that corners were cut to satisfy California's stringent energy efficiency requirements, and that because I did not do the proper pre-purchase research I got stuck with a lemon.

Then again, I am also proud that Californians consume less energy per capita than the residents of 46 other states, in large part because of pioneering work in setting energy efficiency standards. I also continue to be astounded by the fact that the U.S. as a whole, consumes far less water per capita, and less in total, than it did 25 years ago, again, in part due to regulatory restrictions (low-flow toilets, etc.) These are good things.


I am also not particularly amazed at the news that some washing machines right now don't work very well because manufacturers are trying to comply with regulations that went into effect in January. Tabarrok and Tierney should have more faith in the market. My bet is that a few years from now, cheaper, energy-efficient, and effective washing machines will be widespread. At least, that's what the data gathered so far appears to indicate. A study published under the auspices of the International Energy Agency, "Do energy efficient appliances cost more?" discovered that, contrary to expectations, prices have dropped for a wide range of major appliances since the enactment of energy efficiency regulations.

Strange, neither Tierney nor Tabarrok noted the data point that new refrigerators consume far less energy, are cheaper, and yes, keep food cold as an example of how governmental regulation can work.

There might be a better way. A tax policy that hikes energy costs might be a more efficient goad to encourage manufacturers to seek energy efficiency and consumers to conserve than micromanaging the efficiency of individual appliances. But in the absence of such a politically costly move, I'll take what I can get.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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