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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Decoupling Energy Consumption from Living Standards

Cranio-rectally impacted politician Charles Grassley was recently quoted as saying:

You know, what--what makes our economy grow is energy. And, and Americans are used to going to the gas tank, and when they put that hose in their, uh, tank, and when I do it, I wanna get gas out of it. And when I turn the light switch on, I want the lights to go on, and I don't want somebody to tell me I gotta change my way of living to satisfy them. Because this is America, and this is something we've worked our way into, and the American people are entitled to it, and if we're going improve our standard of living, you have to consume more energy.

Grassley is just one of many idiots who see the American "national interest" as requiring government action to secure "safe, reliable, and abundant" energy supplies for the economy.

Didn't conservatives use to condemn "feelings of entitlement" to get stuff without, you know, paying for it?

At the other end of the spectrum, people like George Monbiot work on the assumptions that 1) reduced energy consumption will mean reduced living standards; and 2) reduced energy consumption must be imposed by the state. Both sides ignore the possibility that there are more and less energy-intensive ways of producing the same consumption goods, and that the market price of energy might affect which is chosen.
At Catallarchy, Randall McElroy posts an excellent quote from Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist that calls these mirror-image assumptions into question:

… Over the same period Denmark actually went even further and “delinked” the connection between a higher GDP and higher energy consumption: in total Denmark used less energy in 1989 than in 1970 despite the DGP [sic] growing by 48 percent during that time.

Of course, I've expressed more than a little skepticism about how valid a measure GDP is of living standards. But I seriously doubt that the real standard of living has been hurt by Denmark's reduced energy consumption.

In any case, as I've argued before, the one thing needful to encourage energy conservation is for all the costs of energy production to be internalized by the consumer. Artificially cheap inputs are consumed in excessive amounts, because the distorted price signal gives the consumer inaccurate data about the real cost of producing what he consumes. High energy prices that fully reflect all the costs of providing energy will lead to less energy-intensive forms of production.

Right now, in the American economy, subsidized consumption of energy and transportation factors means that it's artificially cheap to buy stuff produced by a big factory at the other end of the country (or in China), rather than by a small factory in the county where you live. And subsidies to sprawl mean that for each of us, there are two separate cities--a daytime city where we work and shop, and a nighttime city where we sleep--each with its own electrical power system, and with expensive freeways running between them. Simply eliminating such massive, subsidized waste would likely reduce energy consumption to a fraction of what it currently is. And that's not even counting all sorts of other stuff, like passive solar building design, or on-site processing of farm waste into biomass fuel at the point of consumption.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Heaven forbid these people complaining would have to relyon their own ingenuity for energy. If they keep counting on government, they'll get what they deserve in the end. I just don't want to go down with them. I met a guy yesterday who tapped natural gas beneath his yard and doesn't pay a cent for fuel. Many of my neighbors use solar water and solar electric systems. There are plenty of alternatives that don't require gov't funding, legislation, handouts, etc..

Don't know if you celebrate or not, but I'm just swinging by to wish you and our fellow liberty minded bloggers and readers a Happy Thanksgiving.

Keep up the good work!

November 24, 2005 1:03 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks, rebellion! And happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

Re what you said about the people who consider it "too much trouble" to save energy, it reminds me of my experience with curbside recycling programs around here.

In one town, Lowell, the city provided a free recyclables basket for curbside pickup, and offered a trash program where instead of paying a monthly rate, you just bought the bags at a dollar each. I jumped on the chance: after I separated out recyclables and composted kitchen scraps, the bags only cost me (at most) a couple $$ a month.

In another town, Fayetteville, the city actually provided a years supply 104 purple bags (or 156, or something like that) for free, and only started charging for them after that.

But the local papers were full of whiny letters to the editor about how "unfair" it was to get "only" two or three bags a week, and then actually have to pay based on how much trash you generated.

I started noticing the places with the largest number of purple bags. In almost every case, they were filled barely half full and very loosely packed. And almost never anything in the recyclable basket.

In other words, they were too friggin lazy to do something as simple as stack their newspapers in the basket when they got done with them, and then pile empty bottles and cans on top. It sure caused SOMEBODY work to haul the bags off, though; I guess they thought the trash fairy paid the cost of cleaning up after them.

November 24, 2005 8:58 AM  
Blogger troutsky said...

JoeTKelley, you are saying,if I get it right , that markets lose the capacity to rationally distribute commodities because power considerations will always trump efforts to keep markets "free"? In order to maintain power,invested agents will always subvert the free flow of information needed for the market to operate rationally? Am I selling my "productive energy" in the market or the use-value of my labor? While my energy may be abundant I am unable to convert that into into an abundant wage, or able to exchange it for abundant commodities because there are so many under-utilized workers,all with productive energy, willing to under-sell their labor power just to stay alive.

November 25, 2005 7:30 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


As I see it, it doesn't matter a great deal what particular commodities are used to back a medium of exchange. In the end, all exchanges are exchanges of labor between producers, unless the state artificially inflates the returns on something besides productive effort. And without state restrictions on credit and the medium of exchange, producers can probably use just about anything (through mutual agreement) to facilitate the exchange of their labor. The problem is state-imposed restrictions of the circulating medium, and state-imposed entry barriers to the supply of credit or a circulating medium, that make it impossible for workers to translate their labor immediately into purchasing power through voluntary local association.

November 25, 2005 9:19 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

In the act of exchange, the value is embodied in the labor products being exchanged. The medium of exchange in itself is nothing but a unit of measurement, providing a common denominator for the products exchanged. Why should the medium itself need to have any value as an investment?

As for energy, its value comes from the cost of producing it. To the extent that the sun is a free good, the only cost involved is the labor needed to produce or acquire the solar generating equipment. That which is a free good of nature has no exchange value, unless someone is put in the position of monopolizing access to it.

November 25, 2005 1:46 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Again, though, the medium of exchange is in itself just a unit of measurement for calibrating the values of the things exchanged. The parties to the exchange are "investing" the labor embodied in their products in the product offered by the other guy. And so long as the state does not artificially privilege any particular form of currency backing, working people will not have trouble monetizing any number of valuable commodities as media of exchange (as William Greene put it in Mutual Banking, "anything that can fall under the hammer").

I also think you're confusing exchange value with use value. I don't dispute the use value of solar power or of clothes, far from it, but their exchange value comes from the cost of producing them.

November 28, 2005 9:12 AM  

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