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[Megan McArdle] Ode to washing machine

By Bloomberg

Published : Jan. 29, 2018 - 17:47

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The washing machine is the unsung hero of the feminist revolution. There’s a lively argument that the washing machine is actually what enabled the average woman to work outside the home. When finally adopted, it certainly liberated women from the brutal labor involved in doing laundry with lye and a washboard. (Now we complain about the comparative delights of folding the stuff!)

These days, according to the US census, more than 85 percent of American households have a washing machine. Almost all of the rest have access to shared machines. They are ubiquitous in our lives, and collectively represent an almost unimaginable wealth of shared prosperity.

So I was a little sad that when President Donald Trump announced tariffs last week, most of the attention was focused on Chinese solar panels, rather than South Korean washing machines.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why solar panels hogged the spotlight. The falling price of solar panels has been a big news story in recent years: big business for firms that install them, and big dreams of a world without fossil fuels. They are vivid to readers and journalists. Of course there is also a very active solar lobby, with a very active public relations apparatus, which was ready to spring into action as soon as the tariffs were announced. Samsung and LG saying “Hey, wait a minute!” didn’t register in quite the same way.

There is also, of course, a political angle. Environmentalism is identified with the left, so while I’d argue that we all, left and right, have an interest in clean, cheap energy, a punitive levy on solar panels reads as an attack on the president’s political enemies.

Politics aside, let me state clearly: Raising the cost of solar panels will have an adverse impact on the jobs of solar panel installers, and mean more power generated from dirtier, limited resources. These tariffs are economically distortionary and bad for Americans, and they should be lifted.

But the impact on American consumers of higher washing machine prices is immensely greater than the impact of higher solar panel prices. By the end of 2016, there were something north of 1.3 million solar panel installations, total, in the US. By contrast, around 10 million washing machines are sold every year. LG has already told retailers that it will be raising prices as a result of the tariffs, which means that the next time consumers go to buy a new washer, their options will be less attractive than those they would have enjoyed in the absence of the tariffs.

This is especially true because the major-appliance industry is one of the most concentrated in the US, with just four major manufacturers taking over 90 percent of the market share. Handicapping one of the four competitors (along with comparatively recent entrant Samsung) will not only make some consumer options more expensive; it will also give those other manufacturers breathing room to raise their prices, or compete less on quality, or both. The average American is going to notice that long before they notice that solar panels have gotten pricier.

But let’s talk jobs. The Solar Foundation, an industry-aligned nonprofit, claims that 260,000 Americans are employed by the domestic solar industry. Of course, there are people employed to install washers and dryers, too -- lots of them. If people hold off on buying a replacement, those folks will suffer. So will the workers employed at Samsung and LG factories in the US. (Yes, they have them, one in production, and the other on the way).

Both the solar tariffs and the washing machine tariffs are potentially environmentally costly. Solar panels are a niche product, and apt to remain one for a long time, as infrastructure catches up. Upgrading your washing machine, on the other hand, offers clear environmental benefits -- using less energy and water than older models did. And they are not a niche product. Multiply any environmental gains across most of the households in the US.

Feminist stalwart. Environmental hero. Consumer dream. Washing machines should be welcome immigrants. And they deserve more respect from the rest of us.

Megan McArdle
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.