Flat or Rising or Both

by Russ Roberts on February 16, 2006

in Less Than Meets the Eye

We’re adding a new category to Cafe Hayek, "Less Than Meets the Eye."  These posts will look at inaccurate or misleading charts, graphs or pictures.

Here’s a story from the front page of today’s Washington Post lauding Japan’s relentless efforts to conserve energy in contrast with the gluttonous United States:

Japanese Putting All Their Energy Into Saving Fuel

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 16, 2006;  Page A01


KAMIITA, Japan — When the Japanese
government issued a national battle cry against soaring global energy
prices this winter, no one heeded the call to arms more than this
farming town in the misty mountains of western Japan.

To save on
energy, local officials shut off the heating system in the town hall,
leaving themselves and 100 workers no respite from near-freezing
temperatures. On a recent frosty morning, rows of desks were brimming
with employees bundled in coats and wool blankets while nursing
thermoses of hot tea. To cut back on gasoline use, officials say, most
of the town’s 13,000 citizens are strictly obeying a nationwide call to
turn off car engines while idling, particularly when stopped at traffic

I’m not so sure about the technique of turning off car engines at traffic lights as an energy saver, but there’s more:

Takao Iwase, Kamiita’s husky administrative director, joined other
locals in switching off the heat at home, too — leaving his family to
quickly hustle from steaming nighttime baths to the warm comforters on
their traditional futons. "We’re saving [$100] a day at city hall by
shutting off the heat," Iwase, wearing four layers of clothing and a
winter coat inside his office, said proudly. "But we no longer see this
as just an economic issue. Japan has no natural resources of its own,
so saving energy has become our national duty."

As President Bush
calls on Americans to break their addiction to oil and increase energy
efficiency in the face of soaring prices, perhaps no people serve as
better role models than the energy-miser Japanese.

The article continues with all kinds of examples of how the Japanese conserve on energy and how they’ve been doing it since the ’70s.  Here’s the chart accompanying the article:


According to the text at the top of the chart,  Japan’s consumption has "remained steady since 1975, while U.S. consumption has risen steadily."

And when you look at the graph, it appears to be the case.  The red line representing the U.S. seems to rise steadily and the yellow line representing Japan does look pretty flat.  Alas, the designer of the chart included the data.  When we actually do the math, matters are not quite as they appear.

It turns out that U.S. consumption between 1975 and 2004 has increased by 26% while the Japanese consumption has actually increased 21%.  Not exactly "rising steadily" vs. "steady."  I’d say both have risen pretty steadily.  In fact, the U.S. may have done a better job conserving if you correct for the relative size and growth rates of the two economies.  Either way, the chart misleads the eye.  A small increase by the Japanese is actually a large percentage increase.  That’s hard to notice and the thickness of the line makes it even harder to see.

On the economics of the issue, conservation in and of itself is not of value.  We are not addicted to oil.  We use a lot because it’s cheap.  When it gets more expensive, we try and find ways to use less.  The best policy for the United States is to get rid of any artificial subsidies to oil use or any other energy source and let prices encourage or discourage energy use.

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William Barratt February 16, 2006 at 2:55 pm

It's also extremely important to note that this isn't even per capita consumption. It's total consumption. The population of Japan has stagnated recently while the U.S. population continues to grow.

Perry Eidelbus February 16, 2006 at 3:02 pm

Wearing extra layers and a heavy coat within one's own office, just to save a few yen…so much for the country we feared in the 1980s would buy us out. I guess when you're mired in economic stagnation, every yen counts.

I must question the efficacy of their methods. Shades of Ebenezer Scrooge! An entire building tries saves $100 a day on their energy bill, which in NYC is a clerk's pay, but how well can the people work under all those layers of clothing? If I were shivering all the time, I certainly wouldn't be as productive, so I suspect City Hall's on-paper savings of $100 is more than offset by lost work. If anything, what about the expense of drinking more hot liquids? If there are 100 workers there, and each spends $1 a day more on hot tea that they otherwise wouldn't drink…

Starting a car engine so many times might save gasoline, but only a smidgeon. It's more wear and tear on the starter, not to mention hard on the pistons. It's less physical stress on them to stay in motion at a lower RPM than come to a complete stop, especially because when the engine stops, the oil pump stops, and the oil starts draining down from the pistons. After a minute or so, you restart the engine but have lost a lot of lubrication.

That reminds me of what my father used to do. His first cars were before automatic transmissions, so as if he were still driving a manual, at red lights he would shift his automatic transmissions to neutral. He said that made it easier on the engine, because you weren't trying to restrain the car while it went forward. Actually, automatic transmissions' torque converters compensate for that, and frequent shifting on automatic transmissions is really, really hard on them (there's no clutch, so manually shifting between gears is extremely forceful).

And besides, if everybody took 5-10 extra seconds to restart the engines when the light turned green, consider how moderately heavy traffic would become logjams, and rush-hour traffic would become ten times worse. Most people already start slowly enough. Even if people did it fairly simultaneously, it's still enough of a delay that a few cars wouldn't make the light that otherwise would have.

As you know, Dr. Roberts, I claim Bastiat as my patron saint, so I'm always looking for the unseen. :)

Perry Eidelbus February 16, 2006 at 3:05 pm

I should have also said in my penultimate paragraph: to save hardly any gas, drivers will end up losing far more in their lost time. Is fuel really that precious in Japan?

Bob Smith February 16, 2006 at 6:00 pm

>if everybody took 5-10 extra seconds to restart
>the engines when the light turned green, consider
>how moderately heavy traffic would become logjams

A number of European countries require drivers to shut off their engines when stopped at a traffic light.

Max Born February 16, 2006 at 7:11 pm

May the soul of Nehru (India's socialist Prime Minister) rest in peace. And may Mao rest in peace.

The do-this-for-your-country doctrine is remarkably popular in socialist nations and invariably leads to some super bureaucrat deciding what every one in the nation must do. It starts with turning off lights in post-offices and ends in deciding that the 'elite' has no right to FedEx that uses electricity to sort and move boxes. Why not just use plain old human sweat labour?

Mmmm… the sweat shop. That's what we want to turn this great nation into.

Jim Dawsosn February 16, 2006 at 11:24 pm

The end of your article says it all, ending the subsidies would usher in true competition for energy and that would drive down use while producing workable business models for alternative fuels.

We don't need to freeze or shut our cars off at every light. We need to think through the bs thrown at us day after day and have the courage to introduce a bit of real incentive in this 'free' market.

Mr. Econotarian February 17, 2006 at 12:08 am


"When the office temperature in a month-long study increased from 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, typing errors fell by 44 percent and typing output jumped 150 percent. Hedge's study was exploring the link between changes in the physical environment and work performance."

"The results of our study also suggest raising the temperature to a more comfortable thermal zone saves employers about $2 per worker, per hour…"

So much for saving $100/day.

Brian Ward February 17, 2006 at 12:36 pm

Anyone thinking that America has issues should try living overseas for a few years. I live in Germany (soldier) and the taxes and restrictions placed by the government on almost all commerce is overwhelming. On top of that, Germans can collect welfare in excess of the minimum wage. So would you rather enjoy a work-free life, or sling burgers at McDonald's for less money? No wonder their economy is stagnatn.

True_Liberal February 17, 2006 at 2:39 pm

The technique a good chartmeister uses to properly portray the growth rate of a parameter is to plot on a semilog scale – so a constant rate of growth is a constant slope, regardless of the initial magnitude of the parameter.

And – better than plotting energy use vs. calendar time, why not plot energy vs. unit of GDP? This would make your point even better.

johnny bonk February 17, 2006 at 5:20 pm

"A number of European countries require drivers to shut off their engines when stopped at a traffic light."

Bob, I'm not sure it that is actually true, can you name me some of those countries?

There's some really weird greenie disthinking going on over here in Europe, but I'm not sure that we've become quite that silly.

In the USA speed limits are often lower than in most of Europe, which we find strange when we visit. (was that not imposed to save fuel?) … the old world and Asia have no monopoly on silliness.

Home-Rus February 18, 2006 at 11:38 am

On mine I already met this news on the Internet and not time!

Kevin February 18, 2006 at 6:33 pm

In addition to Russ's eagle-eyed catch — look at the initital few years. What's the deal with that late-1970s bulge? US oil consumption shot up nearly 20% from 1975 to 1978? Why? Does that make anyone else suspicious?

Why not start the chart at 1978? From there, US oil use is up only slightly in all these years, and less than Japan's. Maybe 7 or 8% vs. 10%. Do we get any credit for that? In that time our economy has grown massively. Probably less so for Japan, considering their last 15 years of stagnation.

Or… did 1975 represent maybe a down-cycle trough as a result of the oil-shock? What if this chart had started at 1974 or 1971?

the Radical February 19, 2006 at 12:48 pm

Johnny Bonk

The reason that speed limits are so low in the US is because traffic tickets are a multi billion dollar industry. Speed limits are kept below reasonable rates in order to support excessive amounts of police, judges, clerks DMV officials, laywers etc. The auto insurance industry also sees considerable profit from higher rates charged to those vile "speeders". The original excuse for lower limits was fuel "savings" when that argument was no longer sufficient the sacred cow of "public safety" was envoked. Luckily for the law-enforcement industrial complex the guise of "fuel savings" can once again be envoked to secure their profits.

I think the question here is why is the government, any governent, worried about its citizens saving money on anything? Could it be that the government sees the citizens (serfs) money as their own?

johnny bonk February 20, 2006 at 9:07 pm

the Radical,

"The reason that speed limits are so low in the US is because traffic tickets are a multi billion dollar industry"

Thanks for giving me some beef on that … here in London the boroughs run a pretty good racket on parking tickets also. They disgrace themselves and have no shame. Typically, every parked car is checked about every 20 minutes by a foot patrol. Government seems only to ratchet up, environmentalism provides them with another excuse to extort from us.

At least in the USA you can (theoretically) reach for your guns to deal with governments, all guns are banned here in the UK.

vorpal February 21, 2006 at 4:22 pm

I don't see anything misleading at all. Clearly the Japanese have their oil consumption under control.

Dividing oil consumption by GDP is a worthless stat. It says nothing about an economies vulnerability to oil shocks.

Moreover, since the Japanese have never had oil, their net imports have stayed relatively stable. The US has had to import more and more oil for the past 20 years because our consumption has grown and our production has shrunk.

Moreover, the Japanese have a trade surplus, they PAY for their oil with labor. We have a trade deficit, we BORROW for the oil. This exacerbates the vulnerabilities.

Anyhow, I found virtually all of the above analysis to be sophomoric, if not puerile.

Wayne Michaud September 10, 2006 at 3:32 pm

"Starting a car engine so many times might save gasoline, but only a smidgeon. It's more wear and tear on the starter, not to mention hard on the pistons. It's less physical stress on them to stay in motion at a lower RPM than come to a complete stop, especially because when the engine stops, the oil pump stops, and the oil starts draining down from the pistons. After a minute or so, you restart the engine but have lost a lot of lubrication."

Overall, this way of thinkng is passé.

Having to start an engine so many times may wear out the starter sooner, but this would be at least offset by the savings from all the fuel wasted idling. My '97 Subaru Outback with 203,000 miles has been shut off often in extended stopped periods (of more than 30 secs.) and it still has its original starter.

As to engine damage from frequent restarting…well, what about hybrid internal combustion engines? They can and have gone 100s of thousands of miles shutting down all the time.

tina February 7, 2007 at 7:38 am

i have a 96 subaru outback that just recently started i mean as recent as yesterday just decides to shut down as it is in idle at a light or lets says mcdonalds. now lately i have had problem that if i shut off the car and then go into like a wawa and come right back out it gives me trouble restarted. first start of the day is fine no trouble. what could it be.

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