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Article in Need of Salt: Energy Guzzling Republicans

I subscribe to the Raw Story’s page on Facebook and that led me to see a story titled, Shocker: Conservatives have no taste for conservation, study finds. The story cited an editorial by UCLA professors Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn titled Energy conservation “nudges” and environmentalist ideology: Evidence from a randomized residential electricity field experiment which appeared on the web site VOX on May 19, 2010.

Both articles had the following quote:

Our regression estimates predict that:

  • A Democratic household that pays for electricity from renewable sources, that donates to environmental groups, and that lives in a liberal neighbourhood reduces its consumption by 3% in response to this nudge.
  • A Democratic household that is also a high user reduces its consumption by 6%.
  • A Republican household that does not pay for electricity from renewable sources and that does not donate to environmental groups increases its consumption by 1%.

Although at first I got angry with these folks who “knowingly wasted more energy” I quickly realized something was off. It seemed like eco-friendly Democrats were being compared to Republicans who didn’t buy green power. That’s comparing two sets of variables, not just one. To make make the headlines of the Raw Story article and the conclusions of the editorial true, we’d need a statement about where only party affiliation was being considered. Or party affiliation plus the same energy practices (i.e. compare Democrat purchasers of green power with Republican purchasers of green powere, or members of both parties who don’t buy renewables.) I read through the professors editorial twice for the sort of apples to apples comparison I needed, but did not find it.

Fortunately, the authors of the editorial cited their academic paper:

Energy Conservation “Nudges” and Environmentalist Ideology: Evidence from a Randomized Residential Electricity Field Experiment
Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn
NBER Working Paper No. 15939
April 2010
JEL No. Q41

© 2010 by Dora L. Costa and Matthew E. Kahn. All rights reserved. Short sections of text, not to exceed
two paragraphs, may be quoted without explicit permission provided that full credit, including © notice,s given to the source.

The paper itself is behind a paywall with some limited exceptions that I fall under. You can find an abstract of the paper at http://www.nber.org/papers/w15939. On page 16, you find a statement on the effects of ideology alone:

The second regression in Table 2 show that own ideology, whether measured by political party affiliation, donations to environmental organizations, or the purchase of green energy, leads to differential treatment effects. A registered conservative will decrease mean daily kWh by only 0.4 percent in response to the treatment but that a registered liberal will reduce consumption by 1.1 percent. Unregistered voters have a large response to the treatment effect: the treated reduce their consumption by 2.9 percent relative to registered conservatives. Those purchasing energy from renewable resources reduce their consumption by 1.5 percent relative to those not purchasing green energy. Those donating to environmental organizations reduce their consumption by 1.0 percent.

So, instead of a multipoint difference between Democrats and Republicans using power, we see a mere 0.7% usage difference when looking at ideology alone.

I think this experience highlights two important concepts: 1) Don’t accept something just because it agrees with your natural biases, and 2) It’s always helpful to track down studies behind the headlines, especially if it seems like there’s something other than a straight comparison going on.


One Response

  1. […] in Need of Salt: Energy Guzzling Republicans [web link]Alaskan Librarian (21/Jul/2010)“…comparing two sets of variables not just one […]

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