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Published in The New York Post<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
April 23, 2001
They’ll save us trillions of gallons of water and billions of dollars on our energy bills. They may cost more, but their lower operating costs will more than make up for it. They're supported by an alliance of both manufacturers and conservationists, and on April 12 the Bush administration gave them its formal approval .
They're the new generation of high-efficiency clothes washers, and they're so good that federal law will now force consumers to buy them.
If that last wrinkle makes you doubt the hype about these new machines, you're not alone. A dozen-plus organizations, among them senior citizen and consumer groups, had asked the Department of Energy (DOE) to reconsider the regulation mandating the washers.
The rule, which will take effect over the next six years, will supposedly increase clothes washer efficiency by 35 percent . New sensors will monitor the machines' use of hot water, and faster spin cycles will wring out more moisture from laundry before it's dried. The new machines will cost more, of course - about $670, compared to the current average of $421. DOE estimates that this price hike will be fully offset by the machines' higher efficiency within five years of purchase.
But that depends on some very questionable assumptions. DOE used an extremely high estimate of more than seven laundry loads per week per household, yet a Mercatus Center survey found that less than a third of US households do this much laundry.
More dubious still is the assumption that these new models will be as reliable as the time-tested machines they'll replace. Consumer Reports regularly warns against newer, "ultra-high efficiency" major appliances - because they tend to be trouble-prone.
Sears recently recalled 25,000 of its new high-efficiency Calypso washing machines because of a safety problem. And those new sensors don't work all that well; the latest issue of Consumer Reports finds that, for dishwashers, the "least energy-efficient models tended to be those with dirt sensors"!
The new rule is likely to restrict the availability of low-priced top loading clothes, replacing many with European-style frontloaders. Yet many people hate bending down to load laundry, and like being able to quickly open a machine in mid cycle to add a misplaced sock. Low-income families will also lose out, given their difficulty financing the new washer's higher prices.
Why did the Bush administration OK this rule? Well, it was already being painted as anti-environment for opposing the global warming treaty and reopening the Clinton rule on arsenic in drinking water. The science behind those initiatives was weak, but the administration may nonetheless have wanted to do something green.
Then, too, industry actively supported the clothes washer standard. The manufacturers likely see these high-tech models as the key to higher profits - but if they'd gotten together on their own and agreed to offer only these new washers, both the public and the Justice Department's Antitrust Division would be up in arms. Instead, they helped fashion a law that wipes out low-priced competition.
When industry teams up with regulatory advocates to create a legal lock on the market in the name of serving the public, people had better start counting their silver. In this case, they better start counting their socks as well.
Sam Kazman and Ben Lieberman are attorneys with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington.
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