If you’ve been paying attention to right wing media lately, then you’re well aware that a sinister communist plot is close to unravelling in Washington today. A supposed “ban” on incandescent light bulbs in the US is up for repeal – led by representative Joe Barton (R-TX). Voting may take place as soon as tonight.
The bill in question (HR 2417) would backtrack on 2007 legislation which, among other things, established higher efficiency standards for light bulbs. The 2007 legislation did not directly ban anything, but by raising efficiency standards, it would stop the manufacture of some present-day incandescent bulbs – a “de-facto ban” on the cheapest and most inefficient types. You’d still be able to buy more advanced incandescents, CFLs, LEDs, and other types of bulbs.
Oddly, the original 2007 bill was introduced by fellow Republican Fred Upton (R-MI) and was signed into law by President Bush without a lot of opposition from anyone. So what’s changed in the past 4 years?
Barton and supporters argue that the impending “ban” is an assault on personal freedom and an infringement of “big government” into our lives – bordering on an insipid communist plot to control us all. They also argue that compact florescent bulbs (CFLs) offer inferior lighting and contain mercury which poses an environmental risk (debunked here). Finally, they argue that the increased cost of newer bulbs amounts to forcing consumers to cough up more money during hard times – although that argument is preposterous in the long term in almost all cases. It’s also argued that Barton’s new legislation would cost consumers upwards of $12 Billion.
Meanwhile, major light bulb manufacturers are supportive of the original legislation as they have put much effort in recent years into improving bulbs of a great many types in anticipation of their required use. Likewise pretty much anyone advocating for energy efficiency or the environment, or even American jobs (cheap bulbs come from China) is similarly aghast at losing reasonable efficiency standards.
So what’s the deal?
The real question has nothing to do with saving money, or energy, or even making people’s lives brighter. Rather, it’s about the role that government has in regulating the free market. Although everyone agrees that some level of government regulation is required to keep the economy fair and forward thinking, it is currently very fashionable to despise anything the government mandates, whether it’s a good idea or not. Let’s hear it for cheap political points.
I can sympathize with the free market argument on many grounds. For example, if we correctly priced the negative externalities of our electricity production (especially burning coal) then energy would simply cost a lot more up front. This would naturally lead consumers to gravitate toward more efficient lighting and the cost of LEDs and so on would go down as technology improves.
The reality is that we live in a complex, profoundly irrational, politically charged world where raising the price of the most polluting of energy to represent it’s real free-market cost simply isn’t going to happen any time soon. So we need occasional government nudges to accomplish what ought to happen naturally.
Ultimately, the only purpose of this legislation is to create a frenzy of rage among Americans to dishonestly win votes. Doing so will stall innovation, waste money and energy, and build paranoia where none should exist.
I like small government. I like freedom. But I don’t think mandating better light bulbs in an energy constrained world is an affront against anything other than human stupidity.