Rand Simberg discusses discusses John Tierney’s NYT column in which Tierney compares the amounts of energy used in “green” and “not green” transportation. Tierney argues that green transportation methods may use more energy than do automobiles and other high-tech vehicles, whose use environmentalists want to discourage.
But really, most of these calculations are worthless because they do not take account of the value of people’s time. How can you compare the relative efficiencies of different processes if you don’t consider the value of a significant input in those processes? You can’t — unless you are homo antieconomicus, a modern environmentalist, and therefore place great value on every natural thing except humans and the things they create. But I digress. People using cars for short trips makes sense because people are productive, and the more productive they are, the more costly it is for them to be delayed by slow, cumbersome transportation. It does not make economic sense for Bill Gates to ride his bicycle to the office. Nor does it make sense for central planners to decide how different individuals should travel, because no individual or organization has enough information to make such decisions for others (see: communism, failure of).
The sensible way to handle such issues is to allow prices to fluctuate, and by fluctuating to communicate the current relative values of various inputs. Then everyone can accurately evaluate his own unique set of costs and benefits and make the best decisions for himself and, in the aggregate, society. (Note that we’re not talking about externalities here, but rather about production costs for goods and services that we use in our travels from place to place. Most of these costs are fully internalized in the prices of the respective goods and services.) But such individual decisionmaking is anathema to the control freaks of the enviro Left, for whom your time spent walking to the store counts for nothing, so they create rituals of correctness to enforce their norms on everyone else. You must recycle/bicycle/carpool/use mass-transit/save energy/etc. And it’s all bullshit — or, more precisely, a con job to get you to follow someone else’s preferences which, too often, are unexamined.
Tierney’s argument is a step in the right direction. It would have been a much better argument if he had raised questions about whether cost/benefit comparisons of various transportation methods can be made without considering the value of people’s time, and about whether such analyses can even be made by anyone besides travelers themselves.