Who Should Decide the Size of Your TV?
Friday, April 10, 2009
As part of its effort to combat global warming, California is considering a proposal to regulate big-screen TVs off the market.
The average American house has about three bedrooms and perhaps two bathrooms, and comes in at more than 2,000 square feet. You can get a bigger house if you like—much bigger, in fact; it will just cost more money. Likewise, you can own a Hummer or SUV or any car larger than the average American vehicle, but you will pay more for the privilege.
That’s the American way, and the essence of our free-market system. You can have more, as long as you are willing to pay for it. As we have created vast amounts of new wealth in the United States, we have chosen to pay more of our disposable income to buy more. That is one reason the size of the typical American home has more than doubled since the 1950s, and it is part of the reason Americans’ per-capita energy consumption has soared over the same period.
But that concept—if you want it and can afford it, you can have it—has always rankled the political left, particularly environmentalists, who object to consumption that they feel is excessive. Homes are too big, they feel. Americans eat too much. We use too much energy.
How much is too much? Whether it is a car, a house, a television, or even a steak, it has generally been up to buyers and sellers in particular transactions to determine what is appropriate. After all, they are the ones with skin in the game.
Rather than take steps to build more power plants to meet consumers’ needs, California regulators would force residents to settle for products they do not want.
The left has long wanted to change that, desiring laws and regulations and taxes that limit the freedom of people to determine how to spend their own money. By exploiting fears of global warming, they now have another tool to wield in the campaign against consumerism.
The most recent example comes from (where else?) California, which is considering a proposal to ban big-screen TVs. The unelected bureaucrats who comprise the state’s energy commission are working up new efficiency regulations aimed at big-screen televisions, which are condemned as energy hogs.
Big-screen televisions require more energy than smaller ones, and really big plasma TVs can suck more power than your refrigerator. That’s hardly surprising, but it upsets regulators all the same. The California proposal—which could be adopted this summer—would forbid retailers from selling TVs that require what state officials think is too much power. Proponents claim they are mandating energy efficiency, and who could object to that? The practical effect, however, would be to remove TVs with screens 40 inches or bigger from the market.
Last year, the California Energy Commission floated a proposal giving it authority to remotely regulate or even shut down homes’ thermostats via radio-controlled devices at the government’s discretion.
Regulators cite global warming and note that big-screen TVs are extremely popular among Californians. Soaring sales mean a greater demand for electricity, and more electricity use means increased greenhouse gas emissions. In a state devoted to fighting global warming (though one that has outlawed construction of new nuclear power plants that emit no greenhouse gases), that is unacceptable.
Another problem is that California is notoriously averse to adding electricity capacity, which explains the rolling blackouts earlier this decade. Forecasts of increased energy demand put state officials on the spot. Rather than take steps to build more power plants to meet consumers’ needs, California regulators would force residents to settle for products they do not want.
Last year, the California Energy Commission floated a proposal giving it authority to remotely regulate or even shut down homes’ thermostats via radio-controlled devices at the government’s discretion. It did not get far, but did reveal a bureaucratic desire to dictate appropriate levels of consumption rather than leave consumers to decide what they want and will pay for. The move to ban big-screen TVs is just another version of this bureaucratic power grab to control how other people power their lives.
To sugarcoat the big-screen poison pill, proponents claim the measure will save consumers anywhere from $18 to $30 per year. A spokesman for the California Energy Commission was quoted saying, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like to save money.” That’s true, although there is no indication these small supposed savings matter to consumers when it comes to deciding what television to buy. Brisk sales of big-screen TVs show that consumers are happy to pay the marginal increase in electricity prices in exchange for the benefits, convenience, and pleasure derived from a bigger television.
The happiness side of the equation is of little interest to regulators. So why stop at the 40-inch threshold? Wouldn’t TVs with a maximum 20-inch screen save consumers even more money? Better yet, think of the savings in terms of electricity and money that could be gained by not permitting consumers to watch TV at all.
The bureaucrats at the California Energy Commission would likely scoff at that suggestion and say that nobody is looking to take away people’s TVs. Don’t be so convinced. With this recent proposal, there is only a difference of degree, not of kind. Ultimately, they are not striking a blow for efficiency. In the end, it is not even your TV they want to take away, it is your freedom.
Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
FURTHER READING: American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Kenneth P. Green writes that “even your lawnmower won’t escape the EPA’s scrutiny” in his article “The Worst Option on Greenhouse Gases.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.