Sunday, October 16, 2011

Save Water, Comrade! The Glorious People's Republic of Australia Demands Your Sacrifice!

Politicians are, for the most part, suspicious of decentralised controls of any sort. Instinctively they tend to reach for technocratic solutions to problems, where a bunch of smart people can come up with clever solutions to problems and then boss around the reluctant citizenry, for their own good of course.

One example that always amused me was the absurd way that Australian governments approached questions of water shortages. If you believe what the government tells you, Australia is permanently short of water.

Part of this shortage is due to deliberate government mismanagement of supply. Namely, they refuse to increase it by adding more dams. As Andrew Bolt has pointed out:
No, the real cause of our shortage has been as I’ve warned since 2001 - that Melbourne has added a million more people since we built our last big dam, the Thomson, and never bothered to find more water for the newcomers’ extra showers, toilets, washing and gardens.
So there's a lot of environmental hysteria that effectively makes it impossible to build another dam, the one technocratic solution that might actually solve the problem.

But let's forget about that, and just take the supply as being fixed. People keep using a lot of water, and the dam levels are getting low. How can we solve the problem?

If you're from an Australian state government, the answer is clear - we need a public advertising campaign hassling people to use less water. "Target Every Drop", we'll call it! Are you taking a 10 minute shower? Shame on you! You should feel guilty for enjoying that water for more than 4 minutes at a time! We'll guilt the plebs into better behaviour!

That's Plan A. To the astonishment of absolutely nobody, this plan seems to work as well as the laughable 'Whip Inflation Now' campaign of the seventies (memorably described by Alan Greenspan as 'unbelievably stupid').

Okay, so what's Plan B?

Forced water restrictions! Firstly you can only water two days a week in the early morning or late evening, and we'll encourage your neighbours to dob you in if you exceed this. Failing that, we'll restrict you to only using a hand-held hose! "Deadweight loss", you say? Never heard of it! It'll be good for the proles to get the exercise of walking back and forth. And if that doesn't work, we'll restrict them to using buckets!

I haven't seen the next step of restricting the public to water their gardens only using teaspoons, but surely it can't be far away.

As this happens, millions of dollars in property damage pile up as lawns and gardens turn brown and die. Never mind! We all must sacrifice!

Wait a second - here comes the pesky Australian Bureau of Statistics to point out that in New South Wales, agriculture comprises 46% of water use, while all households combined only account for 12%. Hmmm, so we could eliminate the households altogether and it might not save that much water?

Here's what's staggering about all this: at absolutely no point does it seem to occur to do the one thing that would really stop the problem of excess water use - raise the bloody price of water! They're growing rice in New South Wales, for crying out loud! Do you think this kind of economic activity makes the slightest bit of sense in a semi-arid climate with a market-clearing price for water? Of course not.

If there's one thing markets are really, really good at, it's solving shortages. If you just raise the price, people will save water all by themselves. You won't need to hector them. You won't need to make them waste hours watering their lawns with a thimble. You won't need to spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns in order to not reduce water consumption.

And even better, they'll reduce consumption without you having to do anything or spend any money. They'll put in more water efficient plants. They'll take shorter showers. They'll replant their rice fields with wheat or something better suited to the climate. And a thousand other things that the bureaucrats never thought of.

And the ones that don't? Well, that's their way of telling you that they value the water at the market-clearing price. They really, truly are getting a lot of utility out of that 10 minute shower.

So here's the bottom line. I refuse to feel the slightest bit guilty about taking long showers as long as the water department are blowing taxpayer dollars on ridiculous ads. If you want people to use less water, raise the damn price.

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