One More Point On Making Excuses

There’s one more point I wanted to make relevant to my yesterday post, Making Excuses. I’m not merely accusing Tom Friedman of hypocrisy. I have no way of proving this but my intuition is that there’s a “long tail” quality to energy and petroleum use. Or, said another way, I suspect that the top 1% of iindividual energy consumers consume a disproportionately large amount of oil and I further suspect that these consumers tend to be in the higher income brackets. They frequently drive gas-guzzling cars, power larger houses (and more of them), travel more generally, and travel longer distances. I can even produce a tiny bit of support for my intuition. Apparently, people who make $100,000 or more per year use twice as much energy in BTU’s as people who make $10,000 or less. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine that people in the top 1% of income earners consume significantly more oil than those in the top quintile of income earners.

Just for the sake of argument let’s say that the top 1% of income earners consume 10% of all of the oil consumed by individuals. Reducing their consumption to 1% of the baseline would have about the same effect as everybody else reducing theirs by 10% and you’d need to persuade a lot fewer people to change their habits. Additionally, those in the higher income brackets have a lot more control over where they work than people in the lowest brackets do.

Consequently, I not just accusing Tom Friedman of hypocrisy. I’m saying that we’ll get a lot farther a lot more easily if the elite go first in reducing their energy consumption. After you, my dear Alphonse!


A bit more evidence: in Guatemala the net energy consumption of the tenth decile (richest) of Guatemalans is three times the net consumption of the first (poorest). Note also a guest appearance in the paper of the Jevons paradox.

More: across countries oil demand more than doubles as income doubles. Household income of the top 1% of families is 20 times what the household income of the bottom 10% is. If the “more than doubling as income doubles” relationship holds, that would certainly seem to support my WAG about increased oil consumption among the wealthy.

13 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I think you’re instict is right. I believe commute times corrolate with income too. People with higher incomes have longer commutes than those with lower. That’s no doubt a simplification, but access to transportation limits jobs and shopping opportunities.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I have no excuse for it, I mispelled “your.”

  • Drew Link

    First, this global income and oil consuption correlation must be qualified. Incomes also correlate to GDP. Since GDP inherently requires energy, who should be surprised? I always know I’m dealing with a dishonest debater when they invoke the US energy consumption per capita (you bastard Americans!!) vs energy consumption as a ratio to GDP. (No one here implicated.)

    Now, the issue I have with the way this debate evolves is that it trends dangerously toward central planning. I suppose at the end of the day I agree that higher incomes correlate to energy consumption (obviously between countries, but in an artificial way; but also within the US, in a less artificial way) but its not clear to me that the correlation is as strong as suspected, and as policymakers might like to “rectify.” But also, so what?

    I, too, happen to work from home. And I own and drive a 911. But I bet my auto energy consumption is less than most lesser income persons. And I observe that there are quite many single occupant drivers, and those that think nothing of going to the ice cream shop at the drop of a hat. I’d be very careful of “the rich as energy pigs” narratives.

    But since I’m on a roll….

    How come the Chicago area interstate system is constantly under repair – government afficianodos – wasting so much gas as cars eak out 2-3 mph commutes? Talk about energy waste.

    Hey, social planners – So should I quit eating steak at Mortons, and shift to The Ponderosa because of some social issue? Of course Ponderosa is fatty, grisley crap, so maybe some other govt agency would have a problem on health concerns. Let’s have a commission!!

    Why does Al Gore consume a bazillion megawatts to run his bazillion sq ft house?? But doesn’t he Constitutionally have the right?

    Where are we going here? The rich should become cavemen because its socially responsible?? Good luck with that.

    Of course. Hmmm. Jennifer Anniston in cougar skins; foraging for sticks and berries. In return I might be able to help her with manly protection from tigers an sech, and ……,um, “comfort.” Make a fire or somethin’.

    I dunno. Heh. Maybe the greenies have a point.

    Kill BP !! Kill BP !!

  • steve Link

    Drew has good points here. The whole issue gets complicated. My friend makes knives at his home. His energy consumption is high. How do we factor in something like that. I spent the night baking serviceberry tarts for a school function. Would it have been cheaper, energy wise, to drive to the store and by premade food of some sort?

    I would prefer we approach this with some attempt to factor in externalities and put a true cost on items. We should also stop subsidizing the suburban lifestyle with deals for developers, cheap fuel and make some attempt to match the costs of roads to local usage.

    Last of all, we should outlaw 911s.


  • As I’ve said many times before, I’ve favored Pigouvian taxes on gasoline for more than thirty years. However, I also think we should prepared for the reality that for such a tax to work it must fall more heavily on people in lower income brackets, i.e. to the extent you give people who can’t afford to pay more a break you weaken the effect, and that to be effective it could be the case that the tax would be so high it would make it difficult for some lower income people to get by.

  • Jimbino Link

    A person who breeds even once leaves a far greater energy-consumption footprint than one who buys a Hummer instead. There is no reason a person should limit his energy consumption while all around him others are tossing out ever more babies.

    Indeed, there is no environmental problem that universal birth control in the world’s water wouldn’t solve.

  • Actually, to equalize the social effect of tax farming the lower classes for green purposes, we could ban private and corporate jets, members of Congress or the USG traveling by anything except commerical air coach, luxury vehicles, private yachts, housing above 3,000 sq. ft., ownership of more than two cars per household, ownership of more than two pieces of residential property per household and so on.

    Now I would not want to live in a country that made such laws. I also don’t care to live in a society where the elite increasingly behave like an oligarchy in a bananna republic and that’s the direction for which intellectually superficial goofs like Al Gore and Tom Friedman are implicitly advocating.

  • I’m making a stronger point than that, Mark. I’m suggesting that it may not be possible to reduce our oil consumption to the level that “intellectually superficial goofs like Al Gore and Tom Friedman” recommend without restraining people like Al Gore and Tom Friedman.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I agree with Drew, the Gores should not be allowed to separate and create multiple CO2 plumes. In fact, their children should move in with them in perpetuity.

    In defense of Freidman, I think he’s done a great national service by going to Qatar and arguing and defending America with Arab critics on al Jazeera. (Though I also agree with the view that some of his reporting stinks of flying to a foreign capital and meeting with national elites in a Marriott hotel) I think there are jobs where you’ve got to be there, and the more specialized the skill or experience the more likely that is.

    Most trips of more than 50 miles though are for entertainment. According to this link, only 16% are for business. The business trips skew to male professional/managerial/technical occupations with above average incomes.

  • Drew Link

    “Last of all, we should outlaw 911s.”

    Them’s fight’n words. Put up yer dukes.

    “I agree with Drew, the Gores should not be allowed to separate and create multiple CO2 plumes.”

    ??? I think Al Gore is the greatest public example of environmental hypocrisy we have. But I didn’t, and wouldn’t, advocate that.

    To get serious for a minute. I have no problem with the notion of certain alternative energy sources playing a role in our economy. Those would be things like solar panels or wind mills in certain regions. (BTW – My firm, an investment firm, received literally dozens of come-ons from bankrupt or financially troubled solar enterprises over the last 18 months. The economics stink, people. They just stink.) Over time I think we should gravitate towards much more nuclear energy. But think 15-20 years.

    Lastly, I have commented both hyperbolically and sarcastically any number of times that the whole notion of moving away from fossil fuels in a material way and in a short time frame is just a fanciful notion of adults who really are just children. Electric cars still need coal fired electricity sources. America isn’t going to commit industrial suicide. And China (and others) will just laugh all the way to industrial supremacy if we adopted some proposed solutions.

    President Obama’s speech last night was yet another disappointment and humiliating failure from the overwhelmed community organizer and academic we elected; and a sop to his political fringe base. I’m hoping at some point, from some one, we can get actual practical leadership.

    And I’m making the numbers up on the fly, but it would be something like this: 1) increase solar useage from TX through SoCal so that we generate 4% instead of 1% of energy from the sun, 2) in the plains, get wind energy to 3% from .5%, 3) move basic electricity needs derived from nukes from 20% to 50+%, 4) if you are afraid of deep water spills, then get your ass up to Alaska and drill there…. etc.

    One thing I’ve learned owning businesses, if you have a revenue or cost problem you are probably not going to solve it through one magnificent, starry eyed grand action. You need to put together 4-6 practical action items, some more or less materaial than others, but in the aggregate effective to the goal.

    Right now we have a president who is just wallowing in academic, impractical, partially politically motivated, and no doubt ineffective strategy masturbation. It may be fun for him, but I thought he actually wanted to lead a nation. 2 1/2 more years delay until we get a re-do.

  • Over time I think we should gravitate towards much more nuclear energy. But think 15-20 years.

    That’s why I like the idea of small scale mass-produced nuclear power generators. Lower capital investment. Potentially streamlined environmental process. Incremental implementation. Quick to set up and integrate.

  • Drew Link

    “That’s why I like the idea of small scale mass-produced nuclear power generators.”

    Completely agree. AND, diversified sources.

    I suppose the standard counter is the concern of monitoring and protecting so many generating sites.

Leave a Comment