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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Paul Krugman: Give me laundry liberty or give me death!

Paul Krugman

MAGA Republicans say that America is in crisis: The economy is collapsing while the nation is being overrun by hordes of violent immigrants. Not true.

But if that’s what you believe, you should be laser-focused on fighting the clear and present danger, right?

Instead, they’re focused on the menace of woke washing machines.

On Tuesday, 205 House Republicans (joined by seven Democrats) voted for the Hands Off Our Home Appliances Act, intended to limit the ability of the Department of Energy to set energy efficiency standards. In April, Republicans planned to vote on a series of more specific bills: the Liberty in Laundry Act, the Refrigerator Freedom Act and more. These votes were delayed but may still happen.

If all of this sounds absurd, that’s because it is. But as I noted the other day with regard to the crusade against lab-grown meat, the deep silliness of one of our major political parties is itself a serious issue. If you can get past the silliness, there are also some substantive policy questions here. Should the government be trying to limit home energy consumption? If so, should it do so with efficiency mandates for appliances, or in some other way?

The case for trying to reduce home energy consumption is simple and overwhelming. Electric power generation does significant environmental damage. Not only does it emit greenhouse gases, adding to the risk of climate catastrophe; it also has more immediate effects on air pollution, including raising levels of particulates and ozone that have measurable adverse effects on human health. These costs will fall as we increasingly turn to renewable energy, but we’re still in the early stages of that transition. So when you use more electricity than necessary, you are imposing real costs – including a higher risk of death – on other people.

That said, nobody is suggesting that Americans give up the convenience of modern life. The goal, rather, is to deliver that convenience more efficiently – to heat our homes, wash our clothes and dishes, and so on while using somewhat less energy.

How should that goal be accomplished? Textbook economics – my own textbook included – generally says that the government shouldn’t try to limit pollution by dictating the technologies businesses and households use. It’s normally better to adopt a more flexible approach by providing a financial incentive to limit pollution – putting a price on it, either by taxing emissions or by requiring that polluters buy permits.

The classic example is the cap-and-trade program that helped control acid rain. Power plants were issued a limited number of permits to emit sulfur dioxide and allowed to buy or sell these permits to one another. This gave them an incentive to limit emissions, which they did at surprisingly low cost.

But there are good reasons to take a more hands-on approach when it comes to home appliances. I’d stress two in particular.

First, an attempt to induce households to conserve power by raising its price just isn’t going to fly politically. And there’s nothing shameful about taking political reality into consideration when formulating policy. Health and wellness writers constantly tell us that the best diet or exercise regimen is the one you’ll actually follow; similarly, the best environmental policy may be the one you can actually get implemented.

Second, people have lives to live and families to raise – expecting them to make detailed calculations about how much money they’ll save by buying an energy-efficient refrigerator or dishwasher is just unrealistic. Do you carefully read the EnergyGuide labels when you’re out shopping for appliances? I don’t. Regulations ensuring that the appliances on offer are reasonably efficient reduce people’s cognitive burden – you might even say they increase our freedom.

Why, then, are Republicans so furiously opposed to such regulations? Part of it is surely the influence of the fossil fuel industries, whose dollar donations overwhelmingly go to the GOP.

Probably more important, however, is the way energy-efficient appliances have been caught up in the culture war and conspiracy vortex that has swallowed American conservatism.

One nice illustration of the culture war aspect was a 2019 petition circulated by FreedomWorks, a Koch-linked group, titled “Make Dishwashers Great Again.” The petition claimed that “crazy environmentalist rules” had drastically reduced dishwashers’ effectiveness – a claim disputed by dishwasher manufacturers themselves.

But it seemed pretty clear that what really bothered conservatives was the very suggestion that American consumers should take into account the adverse effects their choices might have on other people. That sort of consideration, after all, is what the right mainly seems to mean when it condemns policies as “woke.”

And as ever, there are the conspiracy theories: No, the Biden administration isn’t planning to ban gas stoves.

So yes, it’s funny that Republicans are trying to pass something called the Liberty in Laundry Act. But the silliness is a symptom of political sickness that isn’t funny at all.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.