The New Auto Fuel-Efficiency Standards — Going Beyond the Headlines

On My 19th, 2009, President Obama announced new Federal fuel-efficiency standards for motor-vehicles that would make the current standards — known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy — or CAFE — standards significantly more stringent. These CAFE standards measure compliance as the average of a company’s entire fleet of cars, and so are more flexible and less costly than model-by-model standards, better matching consumer preferences and lowering production costs.

Other good news is that the administration’s proposal will yield a single standard nationwide, rather than two fuel efficiency standards, one for California and the 13 other states that chose to follow its more stringent Pavley standards, and another standard for the rest of the country under the existing CAFE program.  The result would have been that the states adopting the more stringent California standard would have brought about little incremental benefit for the environment beyond the national CAFE program, because auto manufacturers and importers would have largely undone the effects of the more stringent state-level fuel-efficiency requirements by selling more of the less fuel-efficient models in their fleets in the non-Pavley states.  This has been validated in an interesting research paper by Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University), Mark Jacobsen (University of California, San Diego), and Arthur van Benthem (Stanford University).  Thus, dual standards would have increased costs, but with little or no additional benefit to the environment.

These new Federal standards proposed by the Obama administration can therefore be one small step along the path to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. That’s the good news. But it’s also true that the new standards are inferior to other possible approaches.

First of all, CAFE affects only the cars we buy, not how much we drive them, and so CAFE standards are less cost-effective than gasoline prices at reducing gasoline consumption, because gas prices (whether reflecting market conditions or government taxes) affect both which cars we buy and our choices about driving.

Some people may think that CAFE standards — unlike gas taxes — are costless for consumers. But according to the administration, the increases in CAFE standards (including both scheduled increases already on the books and the new Obama proposal) will add — on average — $1,300 to the cost of producing a new car.

Because CAFE standards increase the price of new cars, the standards have the unintentional effect of keeping older — dirtier and less fuel-efficient — cars on the road longer.  This counterproductive effect is typical of any vintage-differentiated-regulation, a topic which I have addressed in a previous post.  There is abundant empirical research on this issue.

Also, by decreasing the cost per mile of driving, CAFE standards — like any energy-efficiency technology standard — exhibit a “rebound effect,” namely, people have an incentive to drive more, not less, thereby lessening the anticipated reduction in gasoline usage.  This has also been documented empirically.

The bottom line is that gasoline prices are a much more effective – and more cost-effective – means of cutting gasoline demand, both in the short term and the long term. But if increasing gasoline prices through gas taxes is politically impossible – which certainly appears to be the case in the current political climate – why raise all of these objections? Am I allowing the (infeasible) perfect to be the enemy of the good? Not at all, as I will explain.

There is, in fact, another policy instrument available that has the same desirable impacts as gas taxes on gasoline prices (and, more importantly, on all other fossil fuel prices, as well), but inspires dramatically less political opposition.  And this instrument is not only politically feasible, but is right now achieving remarkable, broad-based political support in Washington. I’m talking about the economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade system in Congressmen Waxman and Markey’s legislation in the House of Representatives. Their cap-and-trade system will serve to increase the price of gasoline, cut demand, and reduce emissions.  But, in addition, its impacts will go far beyond automobiles and trucks, and beyond the transportation sector, as well.

To seriously and cost-effectively address climate change, it is essential to put in place a single carbon price that affects all fossil fuels and all uses throughout the economy — not only in the transportation sector, but also electric power, and the manufacturing, commercial, and residential sectors. This is precisely what cap-and-trade does.  A meaningful, upstream, economy-wide cap-and-trade system will serve to increase the price of gasoline, as well as other fuels, electricity, and all goods and services in proportion to their carbon-intensity in production, and it does this (as would a carbon tax) in the right proportions for each fuel, energy source, and product, so that the overall cap is achieved at the least possible cost.  The real bottom line is that cap-and-trade is the cheapest, best, and only politically feasible approach that can achieve the significant reductions in CO2 emissions that will be necessary to meet President Obama’s ambitious climate goals.

Back to the Obama administration’s CAFE proposal, a separate and distinct question is what will the effects be on the U.S. automobile industry?  Will this be “good for the auto industry,” as the White House press release claimed?  Doesn’t the presence of so many leading auto executives on the podium with the President clearly indicate that this regulatory change is good for the U.S. auto industry?

First, it is surely the case that a single national standard is better for the auto industry – and society more broadly – than the dual system that would have been brought about by the 14 Pavley states going forward with more stringent standards.  There’s nothing new about the U.S. auto industry wanting a single national standard.  Indeed, for this reason, the industry supported the enactment of Federal clean air legislation in the 1970s.  We all prefer bad news to worse news, but that does not mean we welcome the bad news or that’s it good for us.

It’s also true that the U.S. auto industry has vastly less political clout now than it has had in decades, plus a much smaller share of the U.S. automobile market.  The industry is in severe economic decline, indeed on the verge of bankruptcy, and it is depending now on massive government handouts.  In this climate, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. auto industry is being exceptionally cooperative with the Federal government.

But is this policy in the long-term interest of the U.S. auto industry; is this “good for the U.S. auto industry?”  The answer to that question is unknown.  Keep in mind that for decades the U.S. auto manufacturers have just barely complied with CAFE standards each year, while Japanese manufacturers and importers have exceeded the standards.  So, at first blush, it would appear that it may be easier — less costly — for Japanese companies than U.S. companies to meet the heightened fuel-efficiency standards.  I’m not saying that the new standards will put the U.S. companies out of business, but simply that we don’t know at this point what the long-term impacts will be.  In my view, one should be skeptical about claims to the contrary.  As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the best reason to carry out environmental policies is that they are expected to be good for the environment..

Straight Talk about Corporate Social Responsibility

Critical thinking about “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is needed, because there are few topics where discussions feature greater ratios of heat to light.  With this in mind, two of my Harvard colleagues – law professor Bruce Hay and business school professor Richard Vietor – and I co-edited a book, Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms: Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business.

At issue is the appropriate role of business with regard to environmental protection.  Everyone agrees that firms should obey the law. But beyond the law – beyond compliance with regulations – do firms have additional responsibilities to commit resources to environmental protection?  How should we think about the notion of firms sacrificing profits in the social interest?

Much of what has been written on this question has been both confused and confusing.  Advocates, as well as academics, have entangled what ought to be four distinct questions about corporate social responsibility:  may they, can they, should they, and do they.

First, may firms sacrifice profits in the social interest – given their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders?  Does management have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits in the interest of shareholders, or can it sacrifice profits by voluntarily exceeding the requirements of environmental law?  Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law School, challenges the conventional wisdom that managers have a simple legal duty to maximize corporate profits.  He argues that managers have freedom to diverge from the goal of profit maximization, partly because their legal duties to shareholders are governed by the “business judgment rule,” which gives them broad discretion to use corporate resources as they see fit.

If a company’s managers decide, for example, to use “green” inputs, devise cleaner production technologies, or dispose of their waste more safely, courts will not stop them from doing so, no matter how disgruntled shareholders may be at such acts of public charity.  The reason is that for all a judge knows, such measures – particularly when they are well publicized – will add to the firm’s bottom line in the long run by increasing public goodwill.  But this line of argument contradicts the very premise, since it is based upon the notion that the actions are not sacrificing profits, but contributing to them.

This leads directly to the second question.  Can firms sacrifice profits in the social interest on a sustainable basis, or will the forces of a competitive market render such efforts transient at best?  Paul Portney, Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, notes that for firms that enjoy monopoly positions or produce products for well-defined niche markets, such extra costs can well be passed on to customers.  But for the majority of firms in competitive industries – particularly firms that produce commodities – it is difficult or impossible to pass on such voluntarily incurred costs to customers.  Such firms have to absorb those extra costs in the form of reduced profits, reduced shareholder dividends, and/or reduced compensation, suggesting that, in the face of competition, such behavior is not sustainable.

This leads to the third question of CSR:  even if firms may carry out such profit-sacrificing activities, and can do so, should they – from society’s perspective?  Is this likely to lead to an efficient use of social resources?  To be more specific, under what conditions are firms’ CSR activities likely to be welfare-enhancing?  Portney finds that this is most likely to be the case if firms pursuing CSR strategies are doing so because it is good business – that is, profitable.  Once again, a positive response violates the premise of the question.  But for more costly CSR investments, concern exists about the opportunity costs that will be involved for firms. Further, in the case of companies that behave strategically with CSR to anticipate and shape future regulations, welfare may be reduced if the result is less stringent standards (that would have been justified).

Finally, do firms behave this way?  Do some firms reduce their earnings by voluntarily engaging in environmental stewardship?  Forest Reinhardt of the Harvard Business School addresses this question by surveying the performance of a broad cross-section of firms, and finds that only rarely does it pay to be green.  That said, situations do exist in which it does pay. Where one can increase customers’ willingness to pay, reduce one’s costs, manage future risk, or anticipate and defer costly governmental regulation, then it may pay to be green.  Overall, Reinhardt acknowledges the existence of these opportunities for some firms – examples such as Patagonia and DuPont stand out – but the empirical evidence does not support broad claims of pervasive opportunities.

So, where does this leave us?  May firms engage in CSR, beyond the law? An affirmative though conditional answer seems appropriate.  Can firms do so on a sustainable basis?  Outside of monopolies and limited niche markets, the answer is probably negative.  Should they carry out such beyond-compliance efforts, even when doing so is not profitable?  Here – if the alternative is sound and effective government policy – the answer may not be encouraging.  And the last question – do firms generally carry out such activities – seems to lead to a negative assessment, at least if we restrict our attention to real cases of “sacrificing profits in the social interest.”

But definitive answers to these questions await the results of rigorous, empirical research.  In the meantime, we ought to prevent muddled thinking by keeping separate these four questions of corporation social responsibility..

Does economic analysis shortchange the future?

Decisions made today usually have impacts both now and in the future. In the environmental realm, many of the future impacts are benefits, and such future benefits — as well as costs — are typically discounted by economists in their analyses.  Why do economists do this, and does it give insufficient weight to future benefits and thus to the well-being of future generations?

This is a question my colleague, Lawrence Goulder, a professor of economics at Stanford University, and I addressed in an article in Nature.  We noted that as economists, we often encounter skepticism about discounting, especially from non-economists. Some of the skepticism seems quite valid, yet some reflects misconceptions about the nature and purposes of discounting.  In this post, I hope to clarify the concept and the practice.

It helps to begin with the use of discounting in private investments, where the rationale stems from the fact that capital is productive ­– money earns interest.  Consider a company trying to decide whether to invest $1 million in the purchase of a copper mine, and suppose that the most profitable strategy involves extracting the available copper 3 years from now, yielding revenues (net of extraction costs) of $1,150,000. Would investing in this mine make sense?  Assume the company has the alternative of putting the $1 million in the bank at 5 per cent annual interest. Then, on a purely financial basis, the company would do better by putting the money in the bank, as it will have $1,000,000 x (1.05)3, or $1,157,625, that is, $7,625 more than it would earn from the copper mine investment.

I compared the alternatives by compounding to the future the up-front cost of the project. It is mathematically equivalent to compare the options by discounting to the present the future revenues or benefits from the copper mine. The discounted revenue is $1,150,000 divided by (1.05)3, or $993,413, which is less than the cost of the investment ($1 million).  So the project would not earn as much as the alternative of putting the money in the bank.

Discounting translates future dollars into equivalent current dollars; it undoes the effects of compound interest. It is not aimed at accounting for inflation, as even if there were no inflation, it would still be necessary to discount future revenues to account for the fact that a dollar today translates (via compound interest) into more dollars in the future.

Can this same kind of thinking be applied to investments made by the public sector?  Since my purpose is to clarify a few key issues in the starkest terms, I will use a highly stylized example that abstracts from many of the subtleties.  Suppose that a policy, if introduced today and maintained, would avoid significant damage to the environment and human welfare 100 years from now. The ‘return on investment’ is avoided future damages to the environment and people’s well-being. Suppose that this policy costs $4 billion to implement, and that this cost is completely borne today.  It is anticipated that the benefits – avoided damages to the environment – will be worth $800 billion to people alive 100 years from now.  Should the policy be implemented?

If we adopt the economic efficiency criterion I have described in previous posts, the question becomes whether the future benefits are large enough so that the winners could potentially compensate the losers and still be no worse off?  Here discounting is helpful. If, over the next 100 years, the average rate of interest on ordinary investments is 5 per cent, the gains of $800 billion to people 100 years from now are equivalent to $6.08 billion today.  Equivalently, $6.08 billion today, compounded at an annual interest rate of 5 per cent, will become $800 billion in 100 years. The project satisfies the principle of efficiency if it costs current generations less than $6.08 billion, otherwise not.

Since the $4 billion of up-front costs are less than $6.08 billion, the benefits to future generations are more than enough to offset the costs to current generations. Discounting serves the purpose of converting costs and benefits from various periods into equivalent dollars of some given period.  Applying a discount rate is not giving less weight to future generations’ welfare.  Rather, it is simply converting the (full) impacts that occur at different points of time into common units.

Much skepticism about discounting and, more broadly, the use of benefit-cost analysis, is connected to uncertainties in estimating future impacts. Consider the difficulties of ascertaining, for example, the benefits that future generations would enjoy from a regulation that protects certain endangered species. Some of the gain to future generations might come in the form of pharmaceutical products derived from the protected species. Such benefits are impossible to predict. Benefits also depend on the values future generations would attach to the protected species – the enjoyment of observing them in the wild or just knowing of their existence. But how can we predict future generations’ values?  Economists and other social scientists try to infer them through surveys and by inferring preferences from individuals’ behavior.  But these approaches are far from perfect, and at best they indicate only the values or tastes of people alive today.

The uncertainties are substantial and unavoidable, but they do not invalidate the use of discounting (or benefit-cost analysis).  They do oblige analysts, however, to assess and acknowledge those uncertainties in their policy assessments, a topic I discussed in my last post (“What Baseball Can Teach Policymakers”), and a topic to which I will return in the future..