Path Forward in a Nutshell

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“The manufacturers had to assign the job to the engineers, instead of to the lobbyists.”

Those are the words of Steven Chu, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Obama’s nominee to serve as Energy Secretary, quoted by Elizabeth Kolbert in a post on the New Yorker’s blog.

The message is to Detroit. But anecdote comes from California’s role in setting energy efficiency standards for refrigerators in the 1970s, something the manufacturers said couldn’t be done. But when they were forced to do it, they did it — in spades. Since all this happened, to quote Kolbert, “the size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than ten per cent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy use has dropped by two-thirds.”

As Chu says, the key was they took the issue out of the hands of the lobbyists and into the hands of the engineers.

I’m always struck by the way our political culture puts regulations and mandates down as somehow inimical to free enterprise, innovation and ingenuity when in fact, in most cases, quite the opposite is the case. Resistance to efficiency standards like these is almost always born of a lack of confidence in the abilities of our engineers and technology. And the kind of innovations these sorts of regulations require is almost always a boon to economic growth.

If the issue is dictating the inner workings of manufacturing processes, that’s one thing. But if it is saying such and such benchmarks must be met by such and such year, that’s usually a prod to innovation.

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