Close Call!

I’m happy to report that the BULB Act — a cheeky little bill that would have preserved for Americans the freedom to buy whatever kind of light bulbs they like for use in their own homes — now appears unlikely to pass.

Well, good. It was a dumb move anyway. After all, our leaders have made it very clear that they have our best interests in mind here, and an insolent little bill like that is exactly the sort of thing that simply can’t be tolerated if we’re serious about winning the future. I mean, does anyone really think that American consumers (and those silly “free markets”) are responsible enough to be trusted with important decisions about things like light-bulbs? C’mon, man! Let’s get real.

(To tell the truth, I’ll bet the legislation’s sponsors never really even wanted it to pass, anyway. You know how we kids are: always testing the limits, just to see what we can get away with — but deep down inside we’re relieved when Dad puts his foot down.)

Anyway, as thrilled as I am that this bill won’t be passed, I guess it’s a teeny bit of a shame in some ways, because those compact-fluorescent bulbs we’ll all be using as of next year A) make an unpleasant light, B) have a far shorter lifespan if you don’t run them in special CFL fixtures (or if you switch them on and off frequently, instead of leaving them on for at least four hours at a time), C) don’t work at all well with dimmers, D) are a real headache to dispose of, E) can’t support those clip-on lampshades that we all have in our houses, and F) come from China. (And although of course I know it’s wrong, I have to admit there’s a part of me that kind of liked, in a naughty sort of way, the idea of being able to decide for myself what light-bulbs to use. It felt kind of grown-up and cool.)

But hey, no big deal — and it really isn’t our place to be worrying about things like this anyway. Like the President said today, we ordinary folks have got a lot of other things on our plate: we’re worrying about our families; we’re worrying about our jobs; we’re worrying about our neighborhoods — and that’s why we’ve got smart people in Washington who are paid to worry about all that other stuff. Let’s let ’em do their job! It’s always good to have more rules (I mean, otherwise, things get kind of unruly, right?), and you can bet that before long we’re going to love our new light-bulbs.

Just try not to break ’em, OK?

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  1. the one eyed man says

    Leave it to the right wing to get all hot and bothered about defending obsolete and inefficient 19th century technology.

    These are the facts: we produce a lot of electricity, and it all comes at a cost. Coal and oil pollute, and they are diminishing resources. Both contribute to global warming, which has potentially catastrophic consequences. Nuclear energy produces thermal pollution, nuclear waste, and has safety issues. Reducing the amount of electricity we produce is an unqualified good thing, while profligacy in electricity generation is an unqualified bad thing.

    Life is binary. Faced with a problem, you can either do something or not do something. If you choose to fix the problem, one of the first things you would do is determine how to tilt energy consumption from inefficient to efficient, so you can have the same amount of output with a smaller amount of input. This is also an unqualified good thing.

    However, in order to make things more efficient, you have to do things like have efficiency standards on things like light bulbs, refrigerators, and heaters. As a society, we recognize that the value in conserving energy is greater than the value in allowing consumers the unfettered right to buy whatever they want, regardless of any environmental effects the product might have.

    California requires smog inspections to renew your vehicle registration. Rand Paul would probably argue that the individual’s sacrosanct right to own Ford Pintos trumps any desire society might have for clean air. His is a minority view, at least in California. As a society, we look at the trade-off and decide that it is better to remove old gassers from the road than to have high rates of cancer, asthma, and respiratory problems.

    Have you ever been to Beijing in the summer? It’s disgusting. There is a thick black haze, and you can hardly breathe. China lets factories do whatever they want. We don’t. The consequence is that – gasp! – government regulation causes factory jobs to go to China, because you can make things more efficiently when you pollute than when you don’t. As a society, we look at the trade-off and decide that it is better to restrict business activity than to choke when you go outside.

    All things come at a cost. If you want to drive Pintos, have factories spew filth in the sky, and use inefficient lighting: have at it. However, in doing so you must accept culpability for its ineluctable consequence, which is expensive oil, global warming, and a ballooning trade deficit. To quote the Grateful Dead: it’s one way or the other. Life is binary.

    Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, as you say: have at it. I think most Americans, once they realize what’s being done to them here (I rather expect that most, sadly, still don’t) would prefer to burn a little more coal (coal is still abundant and cheap, and American skies are nothing like Peking’s, even with all those nasty Edison bulbs still around) and keep their incandescent bulbs until the free market offers an energy-efficient alternative that people actually prefer to use. (Given that there are four billion incandescent lights in America, and that light-bulbs break all the time, perhaps we might wait until we have one on offer that doesn’t require guys in hazmat suits for cleanup.)

    As for the frightening alternatives you list at the end: “expensive oil” has nothing to do with anything here, because we don’t burn oil to generate electricity — and obviously our trade deficit will be made worse, not better, by forcing everybody to swap out their cheap domestic bulbs for expensive Chinese ones. (I’ll pass over global-warmism in silence for now.)

    Meanwhile the energy savings themselves are not such a big deal, as far as most households are concerned. It’s the big appliances that use the most electricity anyway; typically only about 10% of electricity usage comes from lighting. The total saving per year per average household from switching to CFLs is only just over a hundred bucks or so (never mind the cost of the bulbs themselves, which have to be replaced at a rate not far above that of Edison bulbs if you switch them off and on a lot, or don’t use a special fixture).

    People like to save money, and believe it or not, most people actually do care about the environment, and will prefer eco-friendly products when the tradeoff isn’t too burdensome. Mining, timber, and fishery companies have all learned that they actually boost sales and general public approval when they join voluntary good-steward programs.

    Given time, and these clear incentives, the free market is sure to bring forth a more-efficient lightbulb that people actually want to use. CFLs aren’t that product, though; sales have been flat or declining because people don’t like them.

    So what’s the answer? Well, if you’re a professional nanny-state progressive uplifter whose only job is to spend other people’s money, who doesn’t give a crap about free markets or individual liberty, and for whom no aspect of life is so trivial as not to require government regulation, and no sacrifice so great that citizens shouldn’t be required to make it, it’s a no-brainer: just pass yet another new law to make the people buy ’em, whether they want to or not, and apply the usual tactics of liberal moral opprobrium and holier-than-thou eco-sanctimony to get those damn Yahoos in line.

    Oh, and by the way: nobody wants to drive a Pinto.

    Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    I’ve used energy efficient bulbs for years, and I can’t tell the difference. They’ve dropped on the floor, and I swept them up. As of this writing, I have yet to glow in the dark.

    Actually, we do burn oil to generate electricity, although it’s only 3% of the total. Coal accounts for about half. And while our air is not yet like Beijing’s, your suggestion is that we should continue to burn coal until the skies are gray but not yet black? Sort of like masturbating until you need glasses.

    It is also incorrect to write that “It’s the big appliances that use the most electricity anyway,” as the following piece in today’s Bloomberg (how propitious!) suggests:

    However, let’s leave all of the pesky facts aside, as well as the reflexive branding of any kind of reasonable regulation as holier-than-thou sanctimony. In your view, are there any situations in which the individual should be required to give up something he wants for the common good?

    Posted July 12, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  4. Mike Z says

    So a friend of mine has a house which is far enough from the upstream power transformer that the quality of the electricity entering his house wears out CFL bulbs very quickly. The longest he’s had any last is 9-10 weeks. That’s expensive.

    In contrast, incandescent bulbs last their rated life.

    Unfortunately, the crap entering his house is ‘within spec’ so he has no recourse at all. Why should he be stuck with this situation?

    – M

    Posted July 12, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  5. Mike Z says

    Yea, but at least those Pinto engines were good for something (Formula Ford).

    – M

    Posted July 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    Fine – cable boxes, whatever. Computers draw a lot of juice these days too, I’m sure, as do all those little wall-wart power supplies that run various gizmos and stay plugged in all the time, and all the appliances that stay in a “ready” state even when off. But that’s the point: light bulbs consume only about 10% of the power we use.

    And of course I knew we burn some oil for electricity. (People even burn gasoline for electricity, if they use portable generators.) It’s a negligible fraction.

    Another straw man: I do not, nor does anyone else, even probably including Ron Paul, “reflexively brand all reasonable regulation as holier-than-thou sanctimony”. I don’t think I should be able to dump nuclear waste in the Central Park Reservoir, and I don’t think I have the right to burn tires all night on my stoop here in Brooklyn.

    It’s a matter of proportion, of ideological predisposition, and of how one weighs the traditional American core values of individual liberty, economic freedom, etc, against collectivist striving for a perceived “common good”. It is also a question the extent to which one views a society, a culture, a nation as a living organism to be cherished and respected, rather than a laboratory for free-wheeling experimentation by idealistic savants — who cannot foresee, any more than we ordinary mortals, all of the unintended consequences of the changes they foist so blithely upon us all.

    Michael Oakeshott summed this up very nicely:

    Changes, then, have to be suffered; and a man of conservative temperament … cannot be indifferent to them. In the main, he judges them by the disturbance they entail and, like everyone else, deploys his resources to meet them. The idea of innovation, on the other hand, is improvement. Nevertheless, a man of this temperament will not himself be an ardent innovator. In the first place, he is not inclined to think that nothing is happening unless great changes are afoot and therefore he is not worried by the absence of innovation: the use and enjoyment of things as they are occupies most of his attention. Further, he is aware that not all innovation is, in fact, improvement; and he will think that to innovate without improving is either designed or inadvertent folly. Moreover, even when an innovation commends itself as a convincing improvement, he will look twice at its claims before accepting them. From his point of view, because every improvement involves change, the disruption entailed has always to be set against the benefit anticipated. But when he has satisfied himself about this, there will be other considerations to be taken into the account. Innovating is always an equivocal enterprise, in which gain and loss (even excluding the loss of familiarity) are so closely interwoven that it is exceedingly difficult to forecast the final up-shot: there is no such thing as an unqualified improvement. For, innovating is an activity which generates not only the ‘improvement’ sought, but a new and complex situation of which this is only one of the components. The total change is always more extensive than the change designed; and the whole of what is entailed can neither be foreseen nor circumscribed. Thus, whenever there is innovation there is the certainty that the change will be greater than was intended, that there will be loss as well as gain and that the loss and the gain will not be equally distributed among the people affected; there is the chance that the benefits derived will be greater than those which were designed; and there is the risk that they will be off-set by changes for the worse.

    So, to answer your question: yes, of course I think there are situations in which “the individual should be required to give up something he wants for the common good”. But I will charitably assume that even you will agree that we can imagine situations in which a proposed sacrifice of personal liberty or property is not justified by the hoped-for result; where the trade-off simply isn’t worth it. Should we lower the national speed limit to 15 miles an hour to reduce traffic fatalities? Should we ban metal cutlery to cut back on accidental lacerations? Should we declare a national lights-out at eleven p.m. to save electricity?

    Obviously, then, the interesting question here is not addressed by trivial banter about absolutes: it is, rather, the question of how to strike an appropriate balance between individual liberty and big-government collectivism. I think this light-bulb law goes much too far, much too fast, and is a symptom of an overweeningly intrusive bureaucratic mindset that deserves energetic resistance.

    Posted July 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    I should note that today my daughter said that the light was out in her bathroom, so I went to replace it. This surprised me, as I’ve never had an eco-bulb burn out before. It turned out to be the fuse: the bulb was fine.

    I then looked at the beauteous light emanating from the lovely spiral bulb, lambent on her sink and bathtub, oozing with the soft and pleasing emanations which only an energy efficient bulb can provide. I then said a silent prayer of thanks to our beneficent government, whose goodness and wisdom allows its citizens to bask in all the blessings of modern techno-goodness.

    Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    We’re done here.

    Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink