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Luxuries and necessities in one graph


I'd say people are underestimating the importance of computers given the evolving nature of the economy, overestimating the importance of appliances, and the centrality of cars doesn't bode well for pricing carbon.

Source. Hat tip.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 20, 2010; 9:52 AM ET
Categories:  Charts and Graphs  
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"the centrality of cars doesn't bode well for pricing carbon."

No, but it does bode well for getting people to worry about and take action on the End Of Cheap Oil. If only environmentalists and liberals could think outside the box. The End of Cheap Oil is a message that will hit home more than climate change ever will.

Posted by: nathanlindquist | August 20, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

nathanlindquist, I agree that that the end of cheap oil should be something more people are worried about and which advocates of a price on carbon should be pushing more.

I'm with Ezra on the overestimation of the importance of appliances, except the air conditioner. There are parts of the country where I think that's pretty well justified.

Posted by: MosBen | August 20, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Everything on the graph but cars uses electricity, and power generation in the US accounts for at least as much carbon as cars do. It's not like cars are the only opportunity for reducing carbon emissions.
What's a luxury and what's a necessity depends on where you live. Living on the Gulf Coast, I would consider air conditioning a necessity and heating a luxury. I could live quite comfortably for all but a few days of the year without central heat. The survey was obviously done by somebody who lives in a colder climate.

Posted by: tl_houston | August 20, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Air conditioning is at 55%?

Not if you live in Texas!

Posted by: nisleib | August 20, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

The geographic distribution (see is important to consider. There is a striking difference between the importance of air conditioning (and of computers) depending upon location.

Pay particular attention to the definitions, too, mindful of the traditional "grocery store problem" in which a consumer can consume (and therefore legitimately value) only those products placed on the shelves by the grocer. For example, if an area has no high-speed Internet access, the importance of both Internet access and computers is reduced; likewise, a cell phone is almost valueless in a mountainous region without copious towers.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 20, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

The clearly missing item is cellphone and/or smartphone/other mobile device. I bet that one shot up in the past decade from a very low base in the 80s and 90s. And these are home necessities so there is a sizable portion of people who use computers all the time at work, but don't want or need to use them when they get home, or that have a laptop from their office. Especially if they have a smartphone to deal with their social networking.

Posted by: tmorgan2 | August 20, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, recall the charts you recently got from Robert Stavins -- transportation (i.e., cars) is only a modest source of emissions reduction under a moderate cap and trade set up. The cheap opportunities are in electricity production.

Posted by: bdballard | August 20, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Trying to tie the fact that a person perceives his or her automobile as a necessity to the idea that he or she won't support carbon pricing is simplistic.

One can also argue that because people see their cars as necessary and understand that fossil fuels are a vanishing resource, they will be inclined to support measures to promote an early and smooth transition in the direction of developing sustainable means to power their automobiles.

Yglesias picked up on this posting and I've made the same comment over there. The central importance of the automobile is equally useful as an argument in favor of pricing carbon, as long as it is directly linked to the rapid development of alternative sources of energy.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 20, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, have you figured out Obama is tanking in the polls yet? I told you to get back to me on that. Get on it, boy.

Posted by: soma_king | August 20, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Are people are thinking of possession or use? In DC it is no luxury to have home air conditioning - there are unbearable days - but I'd find using it all summer long luxurious.

For cars this difference is particularly pronounced: Having a car might be considered a necessity if you use one to go grocery shopping once a week (low carbon footprint lifestyle), whereas using a car might be considered a necessity because you have a 20 mile suburb-to-suburb commute (high carbon footprint lifestyle).

Posted by: grahamkatz | August 20, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

"For cars this difference is particularly pronounced: Having a car might be considered a necessity if you use one to go grocery shopping once a week (low carbon footprint lifestyle), whereas using a car might be considered a necessity because you have a 20 mile suburb-to-suburb commute (high carbon footprint lifestyle)."

I think most people use a car to commute to work, and most would not be able to manage even the occasional grocery shopping expedition with public transportation, due to the low density sprawl of most of America's communities. Cars are luxuries for people who live and work in Manhattan, but there would be real difficulty for most people in suburbs and even within many cities, to work, shop, and visit family and friends, using only public transportation.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 20, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Some of these points, like Patrick_M's, raise a very good question -- how do these answers break down regionally? Ask 1,000 Manhattanites the luxury-vs-necessity questions and you'll get very different answers than if you ask 1,000 Texans. Which is not merely an interesting bit of trivia; it has real significance for policy decisions in this country.

Posted by: simpleton1 | August 20, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

What is most interesting to me is that every item on the list is deemed less necessary now than it was when the economy was better. Are people reevaluating their needs vs. wants? I know I am. A few years ago, I'd have called cable TV a necessity. Now, as I'm worried about making the note for my car, I'm not so sure that I really need television at all. Similarly, clothes dryers are expensive in the short-term and the long-term, as they eat up a lot of electricity, and I'd bet that a good number of people decide that their money is better spent elsewhere.

Posted by: eschro4 | August 21, 2010 2:09 AM | Report abuse

an Internet device is essential, but a move from home PC to mobile/cloud is underway.

Posted by: curmudgeonlytroll | August 21, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

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