Last week, the California Energy Commission approved a groundbreaking series of efficiency standards for televisions, the first time government at any level in the United States has meddled in the details of how our boob tubes are made. The new rules set maximum power-consumption standards for TVs of up to 58 inches, starting in 2011 and becoming considerably tighter in 2013, and prohibit California retailers from selling sets that break the rules. Only a quarter of all televisions currently on the market would comply with the new regulations. High-definition television sets, plasma TVs, larger sets, and TVs with extra options, such as picture-in-picture, are most likely to fall short. In other words, regulators have effectively chosen to ban the sale of most large-screen televisions in the Golden State. Of course, that’s not how the regulators describe it; they bill their decision as a measure to save consumers money, preclude the need for new power plants, and fight global warming. Upon examination, however, those rationales for nanny statism seem awfully flimsy.

Start with the notion of the big-screen ban as a consumer-protection measure. “It looks like a very good deal for society,” says commissioner Arthur Rosenfeld. By the commission’s estimates, consumers will save anywhere from $18 to $30 per year in electricity costs as a result of the new rules. If every one of the state’s 35 million TVs were replaced with a more efficient set, say proponents, the measure would save more than $8 billion over ten years. Says a commission spokesman: “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like to save money.”

True enough, but the supposed savings are small beer. Individually, saving $18 to $30 annually is laughable—that translates to less than $3 per month. And the $8 billion figure doesn’t mean much: it’s simply the result of multiplying those tiny individual savings by ten years and a lot of California residents. By and large, consumers understand that bigger TVs mean slightly higher power bills and are happy to make that trade-off. Brisk sales of big-screen TVs show that they don’t mind paying the marginal increase in electricity prices in exchange for the pleasure derived from a bigger television. A few extra bucks per month to enjoy a superior viewing experience—many people would call that a bargain.

The new regulations apply only to television sets sold after the 2011 and 2013 deadlines. That’s a slight bit of good news. Consumers won’t be forced to turn in their supposedly profligate big-screen TVs if those sets are purchased before the new regulations go into effect. Moreover, the new rules will not prevent them from using noncomplying televisions if they were purchased in other states, though regulators are threatening to stop Californians from buying such TVs from online retailers.

The commission also claims that efficiency standards will allow California to forego building additional power plants. But more power plants are exactly what California—and the rest of the country—needs. The New York Times noted recently that “Americans now have about 25 consumer electronic products in every household, compared with just three in 1980.” The International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates that electrical gadgets of all sorts account for about 15 percent of worldwide household electricity bills. More than that, the IEA figures that the energy consumed by these gadgets (as well as by the infrastructure that supports information technology) will double by 2020 and triple by 2030. Instead of ensuring that enough power plants get built to meet the demands of an increasingly electrified economy, California chooses to ration electricity.

Regulators’ trump card in their decision to ban big-screen TVs is, naturally, global warming. Saving the planet from eco-catastrophe would seem to justify just about any government action, including overreaching into something so personal (and benign) as purchasing a television. The commission proudly claims that the new rules will curb greenhouse-gas emissions. What it fails to note is that the reduction in emissions would be so minuscule as to have a negligible impact on global temperatures. If California officials were serious about curbing emissions, they would reverse the state’s ban on building new nuclear power plants. Until that happens, it’s hard to see anything they do as more than green posturing.

The real problem with the big-screen televisions is that, like Hummers or McMansions, they offend the sensibilities of many in California’s political class, to whom the notion of overconsumption is sinful. And it’s tempting to write off the new rules as another example of goofiness peculiar to California, where policymakers’ critical faculties have long been compromised by an overabundance of sun and perfect weather. But the move hints at the direction the federal government may soon take. California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, has urged the Obama administration to follow her state’s lead and apply these regulations nationwide. Would anyone be terribly surprised if Washington decided to save us from our televisions?


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