The Lights Are Out, But Nobody’s Home

The Nationl People’s Public Radio show “Few All Things Considered” had an interesting segment on daylight savings time last night. As readers should know, a provision in the 2005 Energy Bill will cause the United States to spring ahead three weeks earlier this year (and fall back, a week later). The idea, of course, is to save energy by taking advantage of the useable sunlight in the after work hours, rather than waste it during the morning commute. Unfortunately, according to NPR guest Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, this has never worked. Why? Because people respond to the extra hour of sunlight by doing things that use more energy, not less. Driving to stores, theaters, ball parks, golf courses, and many other places, and then engaging in energy consuming behavior once there, uses up at least as much energy as is saved when people turn the lights on in their homes an hour later. (I think that’s great, by the way, and I wonder why we ever go back to standard time.) It’s an object lesson in why government programs rarely turn out to work the way they were intended to.

The real question is why does government never learn this lesson? It is a fundamental observation of economics: people respond to incentives. From energy use policies, to taxes, to welfare (both the corporate and poor people kind), if you make something easier or cheaper, people will do or consume more of it. If you make it harder or more expensive, people will do or consume less. Yet, government keeps on implementing new policies that appear to consciously ignore the impact of incentives. I realize governments everywhere wish we were all just thoughtless meat puppets who did what we were told. But I just can’t figure out why governments don’t realize that we’re just not that way.