Now and Then, Government Works

November 01, 1994|By DAVID MORRIS

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — St. Paul, Minnesota. -- The elections are shaping up to be a referendum. Not on Bill Clinton or even on the Democratic party, but on government itself. Maybe that's as it should be. For the fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican parties is their attitude toward government.

Democrats believe government can do good. Republicans don't. Rep. Dick Armey of Texas sums up the reigning Republican philosophy best: Government is always wrong; the market is always right.

If I were running for political office as a Democrat, I'd offer voters a compelling instance of a government intervention that has worked marvelously well: energy efficiency standards. The federal government has stimulated a remarkable improvement in the efficiencies of our cars, buildings and equipment. It has done so with a minimum of bureaucracy. And the result has been to make American business more competitive and American households richer.

After the oil embargo of 1973, the federal government established fuel-efficiency standards for cars. In the late 1970s efficiency standards were extended to refrigerators and then other appliances. States established efficiency standards for buildings.

The results have been nothing less than spectacular. From 1975 to 1985 new-car efficiency rose from 15.8 to 27.6 mpg. In 1972 the most common refrigerator in California had a capacity of 18 cubic feet and used 1790 kilowatt-hours per year. By 1991 the most popular model was 10 percent larger and yet consumed less than half the energy of its predecessors, 800 kilowatt-hours per year. A home built in 1992 in Minnesota used about half the energy as one built in 1970.

Conservative Republicans detest this kind of intervention. In 1985 Ronald Reagan demonstrated his distaste by rolling back vehicle-efficiency standards. In 1986 he pocket-vetoed legislation to improve the energy efficiencies of appliances. He argued that the standard ''intrudes unduly on the free market, limits the freedom of choice available to consumers who would ** be denied the opportunity to purchase lower-cost appliances.''

In 1987 Congress finally enacted new appliance-efficiency standards. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a leader of the conservative Republicans, voted against the bill. In Reaganesque language he asserted, ''The net result will be the elimination of many of the lower-priced appliances.''

The Republicans are absolutely right about one thing. Efficiency standards do raise the price of vehicles, equipment and buildings. But that modest increase in the purchase price is far offset by the dramatic savings in fuel and utility bills.

Vehicle-efficiency standards helped cut U.S. oil consumption by about 20 percent. The regulation saved automobile owners $40 billion just from 1976 to 1986. With refrigerators, the federal government in 1989 ordered a further 25 percent reduction in energy use by 1992. That government action will result in Americans paying $31 billion more for refrigerators. But we will save $76 billion running them.

From 1973 to 1990, the economy expanded by 46 percent while energy use rose by only 8 percent. Federal regulations cannot take all credit for all of this improvement but they certainly played an important role.

Republicans argue that efficiencies went up because energy prices went up.

That may explain efficiency improvements when energy prices were rising in the 1970s and early 1980s. But conservatives are hard-pressed to explain why efficiencies continued to improve after fuel prices began to drop after 1983. Energy prices in 1994 are nearly as low in real terms as they were back in 1973, yet the energy efficiency of appliances continues to rise.

Republicans tried to make Americans cynical about federal intervention by arguing that Washington's meddling encouraged manufacturers to build smaller and more dangerous cars. A Department of Energy analysis presents the facts: ''Efficient packaging, better fuel injection and other technologies accounted for 86 percent of the 100 percent fuel-economy improvement between 1974 and 1991.'' Less than 2 percent came from reducing the size of cars.

A few days ago environmentalists and appliance manufacturers reached an agreement on a new federal rule that, by 1998, will improve the energy efficiency of refrigerators another 30 percent. Meanwhile, other rules will soon be proposed that raise the minimum efficiency levels of electric and gas water heaters, room air conditioners, cooking ranges and televisions.

This is government at its finest -- developing the rules that continuously challenge our engineers, architects, designers, manufacturers and builders to do better. That is the kind of government Democrats should propose and defend.

Republicans want us to believe that whenever we act as a people, whenever we act collectively, disaster strikes. The history of energy-efficiency standards proves them wrong. The next time you open your refrigerator, or pay your heating bill, or start up your car, think about that.

David Morris is a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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