Monday, February 21, 2011

What Lesson Did the Phone Wars Provide for Energy Policy?

Holman Jenkins, Jr. in last Wednesday's edition of the Wall Street Journal, provided a very concise view of the evolution of mobile telephony in the US and Europe. He discussed how the US eschewed the unified, monolithic European GSM mobile standard. And how Nokia, one of the originators of that standard, is nearly dead, while Apple and Google, thanks to the US indecision on such a standard, flourished with new approaches.

Isn't this a commentary on government's unwanted, unnecessary intrusion in sectors where competing private solutions drive better ultimate solutions?

Jenkins describes the process as messy and inefficient, but, in the end, delivering superior results. Nokia has run into the arms of Microsoft, having fallen on hard times after initially leading in the GSM standards setting process. Jenkins ended his piece,

"The lesson for the new Nokia and everyone else is an old one: Nobody knows anything, and there's no substitute for messy, wasteful competition as a finder of solutions to problems we didn't even kow we needed solutions for. Whether the mobile world will settle into one proprietary or many proprietary ecosystems is far from decided."

Interestingly, from my reading of Amity Schlaes' The Forgotten Man several summers ago, those cries of how competition is so messy and wasteful are the very same arguments that FDR and his minions used to seize control of so much of American business. They decried the waste and inefficiency of free market competition, only to stifle innovation and mismanage the economy for most of the 1930s.

There's a larger lesson here. Right now, and in a technologically intensive sector- energy.

Doesn't Jenkins' illustrative tale of the mobile phone sector over the past few years suggest that we are making a horrific mistake by acceding to demands for monolithic, command-economy directives to subsidize and produce certain energy- wind, solar, ethanol- without subjecting them all to real, fair economic forces?

What ever happened to price as a market signal? As gasoline prices rise, largely silently, above $3/gallon, pundits predict a weakening of the US economy. So be it.

I wrote this post back in the summer of 2008 after reading a WSJ piece on Air Force experimentation with synfuel for jet aircraft. We have lots of coal and a known, reliable process to liquify that energy source to burn instead of gasoline or jet fuel.

If you worry about sending dollars abroad to buy oil, then promote synfuels. If you're simply worried about carbon emissions, then admit that you want to turn the US standard of living back about 110 years.

But this government system of choosing energy source winners is going to end badly. Market forces may entail some initial waste and inefficiency, but the result is the best solution, with much less long term waste and inefficiency, while satisfying consumer needs and desires. The latter of which is the point.

Not to have government dictate what consumers want, and how they'll get it.

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