In Defense of the Department of Energy (Sort of)

November 11th, 2011 at 8:42 am | 29 Comments |

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Before he famously stumbled in the debate earlier this week, Rick Perry said he would eliminate the Department of Energy. Ron Paul agrees. Any time one sees a bunch of libertarian minded people in a room together (heck, even libertarian-leaning liberals) the Department of Energy often ends up on the theoretical chopping block.

Even the Clinton administration considered doing away with it. And there’s a lot wrong with the department. As I (and lots of others) have said before, much of what the Department of Energy does is, indeed, better done by the states, other federal agencies or the private sector.

That said, Ron Paul and Rick Perry’s plans to do away with the department entirely and zero out its budget are seriously flawed and, in fact, impossible. Roughly half of the DOE budget is devoted to nuclear materials safety, security and cleanup. Although some of the nuclear cleanup costs might be passed on to private sector entities in ways they currently aren’t, there’s little if any prospect that these activities could be assumed by anybody but the federal government. Such tasks are an obvious core part of the federal government’s national security role.

Another 10 percent or so of the Department of Energy budget, furthermore, goes to basic research dedicated to elucidating fundamental scientific principles with no particular commercial or practical aim in mind. This type of work, by definition, is never done by private-profit making firms but it is absolutely necessary to assure the progress of science. Science classes at all levels, after all, are devoted to teaching students the way that nature works; not, for the most part, the direct application of these findings.

Particularly in the energy field, where a lot of the most important research requires big capital investments, it’s difficult to imagine states carrying out this type of work on their own. In any case, does it really seem like a good idea to dismantle the path-breaking national labs that do so much basic research and replace them with nothing?

The bottom line for a libertarian willing to look at the facts is pretty simple: getting rid of the Department of Energy is, indeed, a pretty good idea. Somewhere around 40 percent of its budget is devoted to product development efforts that should be done in the private sector, limited purpose social welfare programs that private charities could do better, and administrative overhead that could be eliminated without anybody noticing. But the idea of zeroing out its budget entirely is hugely impractical and demonstrates nothing more than ignorance of the way government actually works.

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29 Comments so far ↓

  • Graychin

    Impractical to “eliminate” the DOE? Sure.

    But doesn’t it make a great sound bite if you’re trying to get a bunch of government-hating morons to vote for you?

  • balconesfault

    Much of libertarianism is fixed at the level of discussion you’d expect from college freshmen sitting around a dorm room late at night.

  • armstp

    How about let the private nuclear power energy companies take on the entire costs related to nuclear waste and power? All of it. The storage, transportation, safety and research costs. That should make a conservative happy in the free market.

    The truth is that the private sector would not be able to handle all of these costs related to nuclear power without going bankrupt. The private nuclear sector is massively subsidized by the U.S. government. You do not hear conservatives rant about that, but they will instead spends months raging about a few dollars in loan guarantees to a few solar power companies.

    Eli, your thoughts are inconsistent, as you can apply the logic you present here on the DOE to much of the rest of government. i.e. there is a massive role for government in society. Shrinking government will just make this country uncompetitive versus all other economic powers on the planet.

    The single biggest problem with “libertarians” is that they do not think through the consequences of their ideology or theories. There are very good reasons why governments do what they do.

  • rbottoms

    The bottom line for a libertarian willing to look at the facts…

    A libertarian willing to look at the facts? Do they actually make those any place?

    Thanks, I needed a laugh.

  • Steve D

    Actually, all the Cabinet-level departments need to be there, simply because we need Federal level offices to coordinate national efforts on transportation, energy, education, etc. But they need to be limited to actual administration of constructive programs, and stripped of most regulatory powers. DOE funding research on energy is a good example of what they can do. Banning incandescent light bulbs, however, is a perfect example of what Federal agencies should not be able to do. Yes, incandescents waste energy. And when CF’s and LED’s match them in price and performance, they’ll take over. So why artificially shield CF’s and LED’s from the market pressures to improve? Department of Education is useful for administering financial aid programs, but the research it funds is, as far as I can see, worthless, in fact, counter-productive, because it’s mostly predicated on the premise that schools, not students, need to change.

    • indy

      Banning incandescent light bulbs, however, is a perfect example of what Federal agencies should not be able to do.

      At least rant about the right thing if you choose to rant. That way you don’t look quite so dumb. The improved efficiency standards—which do not ban incandescent light bulbs (not that the truth will matter to anyone as obviously confused as you are)—were enacted by CONGRESS as part of The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

      I’m sure somebody who exhibits the level of knowledge you do should be evaluating all of our educational research.

      • balconesfault

        +1

        What should be particularly embarrassing is how many times that particular canard has been debunked. One has to be really dedicated to Rush Limbaugh to still spout it.

        • indy

          What makes this particularly funny is this same posters rant in another thread this morning whining about how ill-informed the voters are.

        • Steve D

          Who stands to benefit the most from an informed electorate? Hint: who’s always complaining about how people are being misled by Fox News, greenwashing and corporate attack ads? Liberals!

          So why do you keep slamming the idea that voters should be informed in order to vote? Why do you keep attacking reforms that would benefit liberals at least as much as conservatives?

        • indy

          I’m slamming you for being uniformed while simultaneously complaining about other people being uniformed and not promoting uniformed voters. If I was promoting uniformed voters, I wouldn’t have said anything.

        • Steve D

          I’ve seen enough of your stuff to back down before someone who knows all about being uninformed.

      • Steve D

        Well, technically, the act doesn’t ban incandescents. It allows appliance bulbs and plant bulbs. It just prohibits the sale of incandescents that can actually be manufactured with output that anyone would care about. By 2014, for example, bulbs emitting 750-1050 lumens (roughly 80 watt bulbs) will have to use no more than 43 watts.

        And who will implement the standards? Who will draft the regulations? Why, the DOE, of course. There’s this gem:

        “If the Secretary fails to complete a rulemaking in accordance with clauses (i) through (iv) or if the final rule does not produce savings that are greater than or equal to the savings from a minimum efficacy standard of 45 lumens per watt, effective beginning January 1, 2020, the Secretary shall prohibit the sale of any general service lamp that does not meet a minimum efficacy standard of 45 lumens per watt.”

        Basically, if the rules fail to achieve savings by 2020, we’ll just mandate them. And not Congress, the Secretary (of Energy) will prohibit the sales. So, technically, the DOE doesn’t impose the rules out of the blue, Congress gave them the authority, but the DOE will do the banning. It’s in the law, not a “canard.”

        See, it actually pays to read the law, rather than get your knowledge from Daily Kos.

        Now I’m all for the target of 45 lumens per watt. (Early CF’s by the way, had flagrantly fraudulent claims of wattage equivalencies. I tried out an early CF that supposedly was the equivalent of 100 watts, but failed to equal the actual output of a 40 watt incandescent) But existing CF’s and LED’s have crappy color balance and CF’s are still heavy. The ones that do successfully replace incandescents do so by sacrificing light for volume. And the CF’s I’ve found seem to have no advantage over incandescents in reliability. So again, my question, why relieve CF’s and LED’s of any obligation to improve by eliminating incandescents?

        • indy

          Banning incandescent light bulbs, however, is a perfect example of what Federal agencies should not be able to do.

          Well, technically, the act doesn’t ban incandescents.

          Ah, well, then technically I was right and you were wrong.

          So, technically, the DOE doesn’t impose the rules out of the blue, Congress gave them the authority, but the DOE will do the banning. It’s in the law, not a “canard.”

          effective beginning January 1, 2020, the Secretary shall prohibit the sale of any general service lamp that does not meet a minimum efficacy standard of 45 lumens per watt.

          Do you know what the word ‘shall’ means? It’s a command that explicitly removes any other option. The Secretary is being instructed, BY CONGRESS, to ban any light bulbs that don’t meet the new standard. Let me repeat that, the Secretary, by law, MUST ban them. I not only read the law but I actually understand what the words mean.

          Since ‘technically’ I can’t take away the shovel you’re using to dig yourself into a deeper hole knock yourself out.

          P.S. Using the word ‘technically’ over and over doesn’t really help your case much.

        • Steve D

          Did you miss the part where I said ALL cabinet level agencies were needed? Or do you equate any criticism of an agency at all, no matter how mild, with belonging to the Rush Limbaugh fan club?

          Now if Congress were to suggest eliminating the restrictions on incandescents, we’d have all kinds of indignant prose on how Congress was “gutting” the agency and environmental safeguards. So allowing the agency to expand its powers is okay, and when the agency issues a regulation, it’s really not doing it, it’s Congress, but if Congress reels in the leash a tad, that’s bad.

          Oh, and do you suppose anyone at DOE testified that this might not be the best possible idea? Show me someone there who OPPOSED getting this regulatory power.

        • balconesfault

          Now if Congress were to suggest eliminating the restrictions on incandescents, we’d have all kinds of indignant prose on how Congress was “gutting” the agency and environmental safeguards.

          No to Congress gutting the agency.

          Yes to Congress gutting environmental safeguards.

        • indy

          Did you miss the part where I said ALL cabinet level agencies were needed? Or do you equate any criticism of an agency at all, no matter how mild, with belonging to the Rush Limbaugh fan club?

          I didn’t accuse you of belonging to the Rush Limbaugh fan club. That was someone else. I accused you of not knowing what you were talking about. Admittedly, these groups overlap quite a bit but I only accused you of being in one of them.

          So allowing the agency to expand its powers is okay, and when the agency issues a regulation, it’s really not doing it, it’s Congress, but if Congress reels in the leash a tad, that’s bad.

          I don’t think it is too much to ask that when people are required to do something by law that you not try to create the impression they are simply doing it capriciously. Do you?

          I support Congress’ authority, under the Constitution, to write laws. I support the Executive’s branch authority, under the Constitution, to enforce those laws. I support the Congress and the Executive branch in their mutual desire to express a framework for how those laws are interpreted and enforced through regulation, as clumsy and as inefficient and, yes, as annoying as it often is. I support these ideas even when they create laws and regulations that I don’t agree with and that I don’t like, which is quite often.

          What I DON’T support is the rights’ desire to use the Executive branch as a mechanism to short circuit Congress by encouraging the Executive branch not to enforce laws or to enforce them on a partisan basis.

        • think4yourself

          Steve, what I believe you’re saying is that instead of a mandate regarding incandescent bulbs, you prefer the free market to dictate the pace and adoption of better lighting standards.

          Here’s the problem. The market isn’t interested in that. Manufacturers currently sell a product that makes them a good profit margin albeit with a certain amount of wasted energy and environmental damage. However, it’s not worth it to them to invest in better technologies (they would rather keep their cash cow). A mandate forces them to do it differently.

          Here in CA, we have latitude to set energy policy that other states do not. Because of that CA has forced auto manufacturers to create cleaner burning cars (that also end up being sold in other states). The auto companies are happy to complain how CA is making them bankrupt and litigating at every point they can. Without a mandate, auto efficiency would be much less than it is today.

          If you can show me how the free market would do it better, I’d be willing to listen.

  • cranky_engineer

    So exactly what does eliminating the DOE do for the country. The proposed budget for 2012 is 29.2 billion. For that we get the functions listed by Mr. Lehrer. They are centralized and not subject to the whims, budgets and politics of individual state governments.

    The DOE is absolutely integral to the military’s nuclear program in addition to the functions Mr. Lehrer indicated. This is a vital function that needs to be maintained and if possible made even more robust.

    As far as product development efforts Mr. Lehrer fails to recognize that the products, whatever they may be, end up in the public domain and are available to all and not locked up behind a patent belonging to one company. This results in lower costs to the consumer for products that actually make it to the market place.

    • balconesfault

      As far as product development efforts Mr. Lehrer fails to recognize that the products, whatever they may be, end up in the public domain and are available to all and not locked up behind a patent belonging to one company.

      Great observation. The history of consumer products shows that very very often the best product is not the winner in the marketplace because of patents and marketing strategies and corporate decision making.

      As a society we can afford that kind of bumbling when deciding on the Lisa versus the Mac, or Beta versus VHS … but we can’t afford it when making decisions on our nuclear or coal gasification or carbon capture and sequestration technologies of the future.

  • sweatyb

    Somewhere around 40 percent of its budget is devoted to product development efforts that should be done in the private sector, limited purpose social welfare programs that private charities could do better, and administrative overhead that could be eliminated without anybody noticing

    Intellectual laziness at its finest.

    If the private sector and private charities could do a better job, what’s stopping them? (Saying they’re being “crowded out” is not sufficient. You’ll need to cite evidence that this is the case.)

    • balconesfault

      Yeah – that one got me too. Sure – there are a ton of people taking advantage of DOE sponsored weatherization programs just because it’s a lot easier to deal with government paperwork than having your local charity help you with it …

  • Perry's Epic Fail: Much Worse Than Just 'Oops!' - Forbes

    [...] think about guaranteeing nuclear safety. As the conservative commentator David Frum points out: Roughly half of the DOE budget is devoted to nuclear materials safety, security and cleanup. [...]

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  • Brainless Driving

    [...] think about guaranteeing nuclear safety. As the conservative commentator David Frum points out: Roughly half of the DOE budget is devoted to nuclear materials safety, security and cleanup. [...]

  • jakester

    Perry es muy estupido y su mente es muy pequena

  • ottovbvs

    “But the idea of zeroing out its budget entirely is hugely impractical and demonstrates nothing more than ignorance of the way government actually works.”

    This conservative ignorance about how govt works is not limited to the Energy Department. And I’d join the comments of a few others about the dismissal of the remaining 40%. Sure there are some marginal activities that could be dispensed with but that’s true of any organisation. Would Lehrer like to furnish us with a summary of these activities that he thinks could better be done by charities, the private sector etc? When it gets down to it I suspect there are actually precious few. Leaving this aside as Lehrer points out that leading candidates for president could make such utterly fatuous remarks is indicative of the vacuum at the center of today’s Republican party.