Green Products Possible – They Just Suck

Responding to Kevin Drum‘s observation that no-phosphate dishwashing detergent suddenly became possible when regulation demanded it, proving that theretofore “The industry just didn’t feel like doing it,” Megan McArdle retorts, “when I look back at almost every ‘environmentally friendly’ alternative product I’ve seen being widely touted as a cost-free way to lower our footprint, held back only by the indecent vermin at ‘industry’ who don’t care about the environment, I notice a common theme: the replacement good has really really sucked compared to the old, inefficient version.”  She offers several examples, ranging from low flush toilets to ‘energy efficient’ clothes driers.

She concedes — as do I — that these tradeoffs may in fact be worthwhile if the “good” existing product is truly dangerous to our habitat.  But it’s important to at least weigh the costs and benefits and not treat the “green” alternatives as a cost-free exchange.

Photo by Flickr user sassiecat under Creative Commons license.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Environment, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. odograph says:

    “green” is an unregulated word. It is used with abandon.

    We simply can’t count on it to identify bad, or good, products. We have to look deeper. Is my Prius green? I don’t know if that was part of the branding at the time, but it’s proven to be a great car.

    It’s similar with green programs in government. We just need to say “thank you very much” and then look at the actual program and its merits.

  2. Bithead says:

    There’s a reason that stuff didn’t exist before the regulations; It doesn’t work nearly as well and therefore doesn’t sell, assuming the consumer has a choice.

    So, once again, government steps in in the name of the great goddess Gaia, and leaves us with crap that doesn’t work. And we wonder why American cars don’t sell? Yes, that too ends up being governmental interference in the marketplace. Almost like there’s a pattern, here or something.

    She concedes — as do I — that these tradeoffs may in fact be worthwhile if the “good” existing product is truly dangerous to our habitat. But it’s important to at least weigh the costs and benefits and not treat the “green” alternatives as a cost-free exchange.

    And while we’re discussing tradeoffs, let’s not forget that governmental imposed tradeoffs are not without consequence to the environment, either. MTBE, anyone? That was supposed to be so much better for the environment, and yet nobody remembered the rule of unintended consequences.

    Sorry, James, I don’t see reducing customer choice at ANY time as benefifical… and it’s with respect to you I suggest that’s in the end, exactly what we’re talking about here.

  3. odograph says:

    I think bit, that lots of things existed before the “regulations” that can now be called green.

    Consider insulation for your house? Good idea? Green?

    What about composting? My grandfather did that for his garden. Good idea? Or just green?

  4. Franklin says:

    It’s also really convenient and cheap to dump toxic chemicals in rivers. It makes our products cheaper to buy. So we should do it, right? Consumer choice, right?

    The problem is that *your* poor choice affects *my* rights.

    Anyway, speaking of low-flush toilets, they’ve got these two-button toilets in Britain (or at least at the particular places I visited there). Button #1 and Button #2, so to speak. You really only need a full flush occasionally. Great idea, works perfectly.

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Didn’t the Soviets have such a system. Where they decided which and what products were available. Worked out well for them? Shoddy products with limited production. Always shortages because you can’t make a buck selling a better product. Government NEVER knows best. Not once in a while, but never ever. There are example after example. Ending a school voucher program in D.C. that cost $7k, sending those students to a system that costs $14K per student with a dropout rate or 40%, it typical government thinking. Support unions at all costs. WORD them.

  6. MstrB says:

    @Franklin

    That have those toilets here too, they are called Dual Flush Toilets. If you happen to live in an area of limited water supply, your local water agency will typically offer you some nice rebates to install them (along with various other water conservation devices). Now they do this not to be green, but because there is limited supply of water and it is very expensive to acquire additional water, so its cheaper for them to pay you to use less water.

  7. Steve Verdon says:

    It’s also really convenient and cheap to dump toxic chemicals in rivers. It makes our products cheaper to buy. So we should do it, right? Consumer choice, right?

    Just wanted to point out the idiocy.

    No Franklin. It is not costless nor cheap. Sure the products might be cheaper, but then we’d have higher costs in terms of cleaning up the mess, the loss of a nice river (inner tubing, fishing, etc.). Nobody is claiming otherwise.

    Pull your head out of your fourth point of contact.

  8. Bithead says:

    Didn’t the Soviets have such a system. Where they decided which and what products were available. Worked out well for them?

    I wouldn’t worry. It’ll work out about as well for us, and then we’ll all be ‘equal’.

    And Steve, I think you’re arguing with the wrong guy. Concept: Sarcasm. It’s misplaced saracsm, IMV, but there it is.

  9. Bithead says:

    And the next time I see any of you on the left blasting James away over some nit or another, I’ll refer you back to this post, which seems based on the misbegotten premise that ‘government knows better’.

  10. Franklin says:

    No Franklin. It is not costless nor cheap. Sure the products might be cheaper, but then we’d have higher costs in terms of cleaning up the mess, the loss of a nice river (inner tubing, fishing, etc.). Nobody is claiming otherwise.

    I know that and you know that. But look at the other comments. Somebody doesn’t know that.

  11. James Joyner says:

    I’ll refer you back to this post, which seems based on the misbegotten premise that ‘government knows better’.

    I don’t disagree that government policies are sometimes if not frequently based on false premises or often lead to unintended consequences. On the other hand, I’m not an anarchist. Individual choices that have a profound social impact (what economists call “negative externalities”) should sometimes be regulated.

  12. Franklin says:

    Just to be clear what I’m talking about, Mr. Verdon, it’s comments such as:

    There’s a reason that stuff didn’t exist before the regulations;

    and

    Government NEVER knows best. Not once in a while, but never ever.

    You want idiocy, I’ve shown you idiocy.

    The fact is, people have dumped toxic chemicals in rivers (in fact they do so whether it is legal or not, but regulations obviously tend to curb the behavior). But we’ve got two guys on this forum alone who think that no government intervention is needed, EVER.

    Of course there is valid debate over some environmental issues. And perhaps there are some difficult-to-implement ideas (such as property rights that apply to air quality) that don’t require as much direct government intervention, but the fact is not everyone behaves perfectly in the absence of regulations.

  13. Rick Almeida says:

    And, in a typical McArdlian turn, the self-described “Economics blogger” offers zero evidence for her argument.

  14. odograph says:

    In another forum I was looking for a “win-win” in the sense that it was good for the buyer and good for the environment. I chose home insulation, and said what’s wrong with that? Saves us money and reduces GHG emissions?

    The blog owner, an economist, came back and said insulation was bad because the government might require it even in climates where it is not necessary.

    I think that shows how people have their radar out. You may like insulation in your home … but you start to worry about someone “making” you do it even before that happens.

  15. Bithead says:

    Individual choices that have a profound social impact (what economists call “negative externalities”) should sometimes be regulated.

    And therein lies the root of the thing, James, for every governmental intrusion into our lives. What could not fit under such a definition of justification? I think I’ve answered Odo’s complaint as well. Not Might, Odo. It WILL happen.

  16. Davebo says:

    For what it’s worth, the japanese designed low flush toilet I recently installed (much larger flapper valve) works better than any I’ve ever seen.

  17. odograph says:

    I think bit, that you are really defining “madness” in a strict medical sense. When a fear what might happen, five or six steps down the decision tree, stops you from embracing an immediate benefit … you are harming yourself.

    I should eat more green vegetables .. no, darn, Obama might require that, so no vegetables for me!

  18. Bithead says:

    Odo… you apprently have learned nothing from history, and those occasions when government was given the power to make such chocies for us.

  19. just me says:

    The household cleaners I used most often are vinegar, baking soda and dish soap. I will occasionally use ammonia and bleach in specific places (mirrors, toilets etc) although obviously not in the same places or at the same time. Those all do a good job-I don’t feel the need for fifteen bottles of cleaning products to fill me cabinets.

    I don’t think the problem is that green is always bad, but that green sometimes isn’t what it purports to be either. Just like any other product there is good stuff and bad stuff.

    I do think the point that “green” isn’t something that is regulated or defined is a good one. Just because the label says “green” that doesn’t necessarily mean it is green or that it will do the job the label says.

  20. Tlaloc says:

    She concedes — as do I — that these tradeoffs may in fact be worthwhile if the “good” existing product is truly dangerous to our habitat. But it’s important to at least weigh the costs and benefits and not treat the “green” alternatives as a cost-free exchange.

    The costs are very much weighed. The thing is that the relative “coefficient of importance” for the convenience term is…0.

    In other words convenience is a non-issue in relation to maintaining a habitable environment. One thing matters, and the other just doesn’t.

    The problem is that we have so many short sighted people on this planet that place their petty selfish desires before their own (and everyone else’s) survival because they are just too damn stupid to know better (or to listen to those who do).

    Plenty of examples of that in this thread…

  21. Tlaloc says:

    Odo… you apprently have learned nothing from history, and those occasions when government was given the power to make such chocies for us.

    Whereas free markets have never had problems…

    SRSLY!1!!!!11

  22. Bithead says:

    In other words convenience is a non-issue in relation to maintaining a habitable environment. One thing matters, and the other just doesn’t.

    Amusing. And the question is, how far are you willing to go to ‘save the environment’?

    I asked such a question to someone who was busy telling myself and my wife there are too many people on the planet, and we had to take steps to solve the issue. I wondered aloud if he was that worried, wasn’t suicide wasn’t an option …and suggested he go for it. After all, it’s to ‘save the planet’ and the earth’s survival depends on our actions now.

    Funny thing, he stopped babbling, after that.

  23. odograph says:

    I asked such a question to someone who was busy telling myself and my wife there are too many people on the planet, and we had to take steps to solve the issue. I wondered aloud if he was that worried, wasn’t suicide wasn’t an option …and suggested he go for it. After all, it’s to ‘save the planet’ and the earth’s survival depends on our actions now.

    Oh yeah, bit. That was an entirely sane answer.

    Funny thing, he stopped babbling, after that.

    He just started edging towards the door, right?

  24. Bithead says:

    If we have too many people on the planet, and we all need to make sacrifices, isn’t his suicide the logical conclusion?

    If not, perhaps he doesn’t take it as seriously as he’d like the rest of us to take it, eh?

    It was interesting to watch his reaction; apparently something resembling the first thought he has ever had entered what was left of his feeble brain, and he simply didn’t know how to respond. He saw, I’m sure for the very first time, the logical consequences of the argument he was pushing, and didn’t like what he saw.

  25. odograph says:

    You do know that many industrialized nations have falling birth rates, right? And that many are actually worried what to do with too few young people?

    There is a pattern in which birth rates tend to fall with increased GDP, implying that a wealthier world will have fewer children.

    I’d think a free marketer would be good with that dynamic, and would not need to go around the bend, with suicide as the “logical conclusion”

  26. Bithead says:

    You do know that many industrialized nations have falling birth rates, right? And that many are actually worried what to do with too few young people?

    Indeed, but that doesn’t touch on the blazing illogic of the argument presented me.

    I’d think a free marketer would be good with that dynamic, and would not need to go around the bend, with suicide as the “logical conclusion”

    Again, you’re missing it. Not too surprising, really. If saving the planet is more important than anything else , and the planet is suffering because there are too many people on it, the logical conclusion to draw is that he would be far more effective in affecting the saving of our planet by removing himself from it, many would be by preaching to me about how I need to do as he and his near Luddite morons suggest.

    You’ve got a hand it to the Unabomber. He had a heavily underlined copy of “earth in the balance” in his collection. Say what you will about him, I will likely agree. But at least, he understood the relationship between what the environmentalists preach, and the logical conclusion of it.

    It’s funny. I don’t seem to recall to many environmentalists labeling him an “extremist”. Or, for that matter, a “terrorist”.

    I’m glad the situation as I describe it makes you uncomfortable. It should. But what it should also do is drive you to a closer examination of the logical foundation of the environmentalist movement in the west. I tell you with no uncertainty whatsoever, that these extreme examples that I’ve cited, are the logical conclusion of that brand of non-thought.