Memo to Washington Post: Please, please trade editor Fred Hiatt to the Wall Street Journal editorial page where his penchant for allowing unfact-checked crap into the paper – and for writing it himself – would no longer hurt the reputation of a (once) great newspaper.

There are lots of reasons for progressives and the progressive media to criticize the “B-” grade Waxman-Markey bill. Most notably, the 2020 target is too weak, too easy to meet with the over abundance of low-cost clean energy strategies available in this country. There are lots of reasons for status quo centrists to criticize the bill. Most notably, they don’t get that global warming is a big deal (see “David Broder is the stenographer of those centrists who are fatally uninformed about global warming“).

But what kind of newspaper would attack the bill because it sets a standard that requires new buildings to become more energy efficient? That is a hard-core conservative critique. Pretty much everybody else understands the multiple market barriers that work against energy-efficient design – including the fact that the overwhelming majority of buildings are not built by the people who occupy them. Construction and management companies emphasize minimizing first cost, spending the least amount of money upfront, which has the effect of maximizing lifecycle cost, leading to much higher energy bills that otherwise rational decision-making would lead to.

And so most reasonable, non-conservative observers understand and support national standards for energy-efficient appliances and buildings, such as you find in the Waxman-Markey bill (see “Better buildings soon? Energy and climate bill would set national energy codes“). But not if you work for the editorial page of the Washington Post, which is usually derided as leftist by the right-wing and derided as centrist by progressives, but is now just plain derided by everybody.

Let’s go through the critique in Sunday’s unsigned Washington Post editorial, a piece that is both naïve and paranoid at the same time (which one can safely assume ed page editor Fred Hiatt had a big hand in) and Hiatt’s signed column today (which he apparently wrote because Krauthammer, Will, Samuelson, and the occasional Schlesinger column don’t satisfy his need for pushing right wing disinformation).

First we have the conspiracy-theory pushing Sunday editorial:

Buried Code
The unexamined federal regulation in a House energy bill

The thesis of the piece is that the people who wrote the bill are trying to conceal its provisions from the public and the media, including energy-efficient building codes. How diabolical of Reps. Waxman and Markey!

Only thing is, the bill has been on the web for weeks, and on Tuesday the Committee published a summary of the key provisions (here), emphasizing upfront that one of the highlights of the bill is:

Mandate new energy-saving standards for buildings, appliances, and industry.

And then the Committee detailed in the accompanying summary:

Building Standards. ACES establishes new standards for building efficiency, requiring new buildings to be 30% more efficient in 2012 and 50% more efficient in 2016. States are offered allowances that they can sell to support adoption and enforcement of the new standards. The Department of Energy must enforce the standards in states that do not incorporate the building standards into their state building codes.

Apparently, the Washington Post, whose journalists once routingly won Pulitzer prizes for uncovering the deepest, darkest secrets of the government, can’t even use the Internet these days. Their editorial opens:

THE RUNNING joke in Washington is that nobody has read the 900-plus-page energy bill sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), which the House will consider in coming weeks.

Uhh, actually this isn’t a running joke in Washington, since most everyone here knows that the bill is no more complicated than a typical major piece of environmental legislation, like the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act. Certainly some people have criticized the bill as too long and complicated, but mostly those are folks who are unfamiliar with the legislative process – which I guess now includes the Washington Post editorial page.

The bill would transform the energy system of the country over the next few decades to remove virtually all greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. economy. That ain’t easy, it can’t be done simply, and this is certainly the most ambitious piece of legislation ever contemplated by the U.S. Congress. Only an editorial page editor who is very politically naïve, who has little understanding of the scale of the climate problem and the scale of the energy solutions required, would start his or her critique by focusing on the length of the bill.

What you hear from its backers is that its cap-and-trade provisions would create a market-based program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – which should mean that a simple, systemwide incentive encourages polluters to make the easiest reductions in greenhouse gases first, keeping the costs of fighting global warming to a minimum. In fact, the bill also contains regulations on everything from light bulb standards to the specs on hot tubs, and it will reshape America’s economy in dozens of ways that many don’t realize.

Wow.

The writer is both incredibly naïve and incredibly paranoid in the same paragraph. The Washington Post enters tin-foil hat land when it accuses the backers of misleading people about the contents of the bill. Most of the backers I know are ecstatic about the energy-efficient standards and eager to tell people about them. That’s why Waxman and Markey made it a lead bullet in their Tuesday web summary. That’s why I featured a post discussing the provision in detail.

The naïveté is even more staggering. How could you possibly cut US greenhouse gas emissions 83% in four decades with a few simply, systemwide incentives? The Post is in fairy-dust land on this one. I have been meaning to write about a recent Carnegie Mellon University report that explains what I think should be obvious, but until I get around to that, you can look at the Green Car Congress piece on it, “CMU Paper: Market-Based Mechanisms for CO2 Reduction Will Be Insufficient to Attain Mid-Century Goals.”

According to the bill’s advocates, America’s buildings acco
unt for perhaps 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse emissions, and technology is available for builders to meet the targets in ways that are economical for building owners. Much of the problem is old buildings that waste huge amounts of energy, which wouldn’t necessarily be touched by the new code. But it would be good if builders met these efficiency goals with new construction.

Is the best way to achieve that, though, to federalize what has long been a matter of local concern?

This is a purely right-wing ideological critique with no basis in substantive policy analysis. We have appliance efficiency standards in part because appliance manufacturers lobbied Congress so they wouldn’t have to design appliances for 50 different state standards. In the case of buildings, most states simply aren’t doing anything on energy efficiency. As noted in the summary above, the bill even provides allowances to allow states to incorporate the new standards into their building standards, and only goes to the trouble of enforcement if the states don’t do it.

And if the point of cap-and-trade is to change market incentives, why does Congress, and not the market, need to dictate these changes? Those are a few questions that emerge when you begin to read through the 900 pages.

Once again, market-based mechanisms, which is to say price-based mechanisms, do not drive energy efficiency very well (see “why the allocations do not undermine energy efficiency efforts“). Why? As all of the experts on energy efficiency have said many times, energy efficiency is cost-effective today. If you want energy efficiency, which is the cheapest mitigation strategy, you need to tear down the market barriers that block it. Many of those barriers impede energy efficiency from being adopted in new buildings as noted above.

The Post compounds this naïve paranoia by letting editorial page editor Hiatt write an op-ed piece today, “Gridlock’s Irresponsible Heir?” to repeat his bewildering talking points:

For moderate voters clinging to some faith in government, the question over the past two decades of mostly two-party rule was: Can’t Washington do anything?

Now, with one party pretty much in control, the question has become both more hopeful and more anxious: Will Washington do anything responsibly?

Yes, “responsibly” is a freighted, finger-wagging word. But it seems a fair question to ask of a radically remade capital.

So Hiatt speaks for “moderate voters” – which, as we’ll see, are really center-right voters – and uses the uber-loaded word radical to describe Washington. Yes, I’m aware he said “radically remade,” but as my father was a newspaper editor I am more than aware that this is one profession that chooses each and every word very carefully. He wanted to use the word “radical” and he did.

Hiatt is another of those right-of-center “centrists” like Broder who are fatally uninformed about global warming:

There’s no easy answer on climate change, either, but most economists would say the sensible approach would be to levy a tax on oil, gas and coal and then get out of the way. Higher prices for those fuels would discourage use and encourage investment into wind power, conservation and other good things. To cushion the blow, you could rebate the money in a progressive or at least neutral way.

Hiatt has no way whatsoever of knowing what “most economists would say.” He is just making up crap here to defend his position. Not that the Post bother to fact check opinion pieces anyway, but they certainly aren’t going to fact check Hiatt’s.

You simply can’t do a tax by itself because one of the points of a climate bill is to be able to go to other countries and say these are the emissions targets that the US government and American people have agreed to. Without targets and a clear-cut way to meet them, an international deal is impossible and the problem is unsolvable.

I dare so many if not most major economists who follow this issue fully understand that – see Nobelist Krugman strongly endorses Waxman-Markey: “The claim that carbon taxes are better than cap and trade is, in my view, just wrong.” and Robert Stavins.

Just Imposing a price on carbon can’t possibly solve this problem (see also the CMU report cited above).

But Obama and Congress don’t want to take responsibility for raising taxes any more than they do for limiting health-care options. So Democratic leaders in the House have fashioned a 946-page climate change bill that forces industries to pay to exceed a gradually declining limit on carbon emissions. It’s a tax with deniability, and with huge enforcement challenges.

Here the Post goes again with the “946-page climate change bill” criticism that their editorial page had raised just the previous day. Uber-lame and uber-naive.

Hiatt’s entire thesis is built around the notion that a tax is inherently and irredeemably superior and more honest than cap-and-trade – and that that supposedly fact is a widely known in the policy community, so that choosing the cap-and-trade path is irresponsible. There is no truth whatsoever to that assertion (see here and here).

Indeed, most Americans view the Europeans as more informed and more aggressive on climate action, and yet they chose the cap-and-trade path (see “Europe poised to meet Kyoto target: Does this mean the much-maligned European Trading System is a success?“)

Hiatt may not be a status quo center-right/conservative no nothing when it comes to energy and climate – but if not, he does a better job of hiding it than the authors of Waxman-Markey have done hiding its energy efficiency provisions.

Trade him to the WSJ, already.

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