Some 21st Century Ideas on Energy and Employment

Worth A Look, Energy, Frontier Centre

With gas prices skyrocketing, people are looking once again at ways to save energy. Unfortunately, while high gas prices bring back memories of the 1970s, the policy solutions that some people are bringing forth seem about as dated as shag carpets and leisure suits.

Better fuel efficiency for cars is a good idea, though imposing it via federal regulations probably isn’t: Today’s sport-utility fad (now fading in light of high gas prices) was as much the creature of government policy as of consumer preference: Sport-utes took the place of the big station wagons favored by an earlier generation of suburbanites, not least because CAFE standards applied to station wagons but not to “trucks,” a class that included sport-utility vehicles. (They also got a break on safety rules, and more favorable tax treatment). I suspect that the Law of Unintended Consequences will apply to any future regulatory efforts along these lines, too, and that the best thing to do is to let the market decide. If people still want sport-utes when gas is pushing $3.50 a gallon, they must feel that they’re pretty worthwhile.

Likewise, proposals for more commuter-rail lines seem to miss the point. The problem with “commuter rail” systems is that they presuppose commuters, and the changing U.S. economy makes traditional commuting — in which armies of workers flock from suburbs to downtowns in the morning, and back home in the evenings — less significant. While there are still plenty of people who commute this way, there are a lot more people who work in edge cities, or from home, or who keep irregular hours and run a lot of errands, for whom commuter rail systems aren’t likely to do much good. The flexibility of the automobile, as Ralph Kinney Bennett has noted, isn’t matched by other transportation systems.

I haven’t heard anyone suggest bringing back the 55 mile per hour speed limit, though, so I guess I should be grateful for small favors. But what about some 21st Century ideas?

One suggestion that does make sense to me is to encourage telecommuting and work at home. Managers and unions don’t like this much: Managers because they like to have workers in plain sight (which also makes managers look more important), and unions because it’s harder to organize workers who aren’t all in one place. But while there’s still plenty of work that can’t be done at home, there’s a lot more these days that can, and people who work at home use a lot less gas. On days when I don’t have to go to campus, I sometimes stay home all day, and even when I go out to run errands, I tend to log a lot fewer miles than I do on days when I go to the office. There have been a few moves to make tax laws and workplace regulations more friendly to telecommuters and home-based businesses, but this is a subject that should get another look. The shift to cottage industry is already underway, for lots of other valid reasons, and its energy efficiency is just another attraction.

What’s more, the federal government, which has lots of employees, and lots of jobs that can be done from home, should take a very aggressive role in promoting telecommuting internally. If this shrinks the demand for new federal buildings, so much the better. It also occurs to me that once “working” doesn’t come to mean “being in the office for eight hours regardless of whether anything gets done,” people might start looking for output-related metrics, which might allow us to shrink the number of federal employees — something sure to make both managers and unions unhappy, but something also likely to be good news for taxpayers.

Likewise, I think it’s worth encouraging shopping from home, too. I order a lot of things from the Web specifically because it saves me the hassle of venturing out into traffic to visit stores, but when I avoid that hassle I avoid burning gas, too. True, the delivery truck burns gas — but it’s delivering to a lot of other homes at the same time it’s delivering to mine, so overall it winds up using considerably less per person than if everyone shops individually. As we formulate energy policies, we should try to ensure that home-delivery services are encouraged, or at least not put to extra trouble. If even a modest percentage of grocery-shopping runs, for example, were replaced by internet shopping and home delivery, gas consumption would be substantially reduced — particularly as I suspect that the early adopters would tend to be the people facing the longest drives.

As an added bonus, to the extent that more people work at home instead of in crowded office buildings, there’s also a homeland-security and public-health benefit: There would be fewer dense targets for terrorism, and probably fewer opportunities for people to spread, and catch, infectious bugs ranging from the common cold to avian flu. (Opportunities to date coworkers might be reduced, of course, but I suppose there’s an Internet-based alternative there, too . . . .)

We won’t solve our energy problems by embracing the Internet and telecommuting, of course. But these are tools, and policies, that we didn’t have in the 1970s, and they’re likely to do considerable good today.