If you're a regular reader, you'll already know that I have both an environmental and a capitalist streak in me. I don't think these two need be in eternal conflict; in fact today's post is going to outline a way in which we can encourage the adoption of green technologies without messing around with the marketplace.
Good Policy Assumes Laziness
First of all, let me fire a diffuse attack at all of the legislated incentives to get people to adopt new green technology. While legislated incentives can be better than nothing, often the incentives are not proportional to the environmental good done (e.g. giving a fixed tax rebate to cars purchased with better than a certain mileage - there's just a threshold and no proportionality), and almost always these bills can't and shouldn't be passed when the technology has only limited applicability. However, I think that there are potentially many diverse opportunities for incremental improvements that just can't be addressed by legislated incentives. Good policy should automatically reward where it should; good policy is lazy and future-proof.
Virtue should be Its Own Reward
In this post I'm going to outline a way to promote environmental benefits in a natural, non-legislative way. Specifically, we should require that the advertised price of goods reflect the total cost of ownership, and not just the sale price. For example, when buying a house, the only price you would be allowed to advertise should be the sum of the sale price and the forecast cost of 20 years of utilities in the house. This way, houses with the same listed price would be equally affordable, and there would be incentives to build houses that were greener. Let me slow down a bit to unpack all of these comments so that they make a little more sense.
I'm Lazy Too
How many of you have bought a house or rented an apartment without first calculating the expected utility bills? I have never requested past utility statements for any property I've rented, and I certainly haven't done any thorough analysis of properties I'm only marginally interested in. I think I'm pretty typical in my laziness too: while I might try to factor in energy efficiency, I don't have a clear idea as to how much a given setup will affect my bottom line.
Modern economists acknowledge that humans make decision (and big ones too) with imperfect information, which results in less-than-optimal buying decisions. The most common numeric piece of information people take into account when looking to buy a house or rent an apartment is its price; my idea is to fold utility costs into the price from the outset so that people can make a lazy but correct decision as to how much they would like to spend on a heated domicile.
If I ruled the world, the list price for all houses would have to be the sale price plus 20 years of expected utilities costs, based on prior use records. (Aside: 20 years is a round figure on the order of the inflation-adjusted doubling time of money at prime rates, so if you were to invest this sum at the time of sale its simple interest could pay utilities from the interest essentially for ever. Perhaps 20 years is a little on the short side.) The sale price would be allowed to be advertised only as a line item in conjunction with the utilities cost and the total list price. Lying would be considered fraud.
Guessing the efficiency of a new building might be difficult, but it should be possible to use statistics to fine any construction company which consistently lowball's the heating estimates of the buildings they make.
The same idea could be applied to automobiles: add the cost of driving 50 000 city and 50 000 highway miles before getting the list price. (Aside: this will come out to around $10 000: enough to perhaps convince many people to buy newer, more fuel-efficient cars. Who would want a clunker when the list price is $11 200? We might be able to persuade car manufacturers to lobby for this idea since it would boost new car sales.)
Perhaps major appliances and computers should have a similar addition to advertised price, maybe also including the mean time until failure. At some point gizmos become too small for these advertising restrictions cease to make sense, but I don't know if this transition happens at the "toaster" level or the "microwave" level.
Lazily Greener Incentives
Consider the implications of my idea on builders and house maintainers. If you build a house that's more energy-efficient, its value to the seller will automatically be higher, since it competes with houses of the same list price. The 20-year cost of heating a poorly-insulated house in a cold climate can top $100 000*, so energy-efficient designs and materials could give a significant edge on the open market.
Moreover, if home buyers were to display a fraction of the eco-chic that Prius-cravers show, perhaps small 20-year heating cost stats would carry the same caché as slim cellphones. In any case, energy efficiency could be reducible to a dollar value, which is great for putting things into perspective.
Let me recap a few of the reasons why I think we should add use cost to sale price to determine the list price of automobiles, houses etc.
- It's the duty of the government to protect consumers from false advertising.
- Markets are more efficient when more information is used.
- It's easier to perform cost analyses once per item sold than once per potential sale.
- Green policy should provide continuous incentives to make better products, and these incentives should be proportional to the environmental good done.
- Legislated incentives are rigid, slow-to-implement, and fiscally inefficient.
*Friends of mine in Toronto rented a house with typical winter heating bills of $2000 per month, even though some of them opted to turn the heat down and sleep in arctic sleeping bags. I'm sure that if this heating were advertised in the listed rent they would have rented elsewhere. The 20-year heating cost for this Victorian behemoth would have been over a quarter-million bucks: a significant warning to any prospective home-buyer, and a burning incentive for the current owner to insulate better to protect the house's retail and rental value.