Is the “Light Bulb Ban” a Communist Plot?

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.

Vote wisely.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

13 responses

  1. Actually, Nick, it’s a capitalist plot, not a communist one.

    Do your homework. Philips and GE lobbied hard to pass the 2007 legislation in order to get their bulbs into a preferred and protected position in the market. Ever wonder why the law was passed during the Bush administration?

    Thanks for supporting a rigged, corporate-run marketplace.

    1. So what if those corporations benefit? Of course they lobbied for it. I don’t like crony capitalism either, but in this case, the benefits would be a win-win-win. And plenty more than those companies also support it.

  2. The “so what” is:
    (1) Many of us are pro-environment in any number of ways. That includes our domestic environments. In our houses, we prefer the conveniently dimmable and reddish-hued light from incandescents under many circumstances. And we don’t think the current alternatives to the light bulb are better (CFLs burn out very quickly when used on-and-off).
    (2) Using government regulations to eliminate competition for a new product, no matter how good the new product is, is a very bad precedent for “free” markets. If the new bulbs are better, then they can win market share the old fashioned way. Obviously Philips wants to see this law enacted before its patents on its newer bulbs start to run out.
    (3) If you want to curtail electricity use, then raise the cost of electricity and let people figure out their own personal method of curtailment. I know you say that politicians are not stalwart enough to pass such energy-cost-raising legislation (you are right) but that doesn’t justify meddling with a product that many of us who are responsible and environmentally conscious find to be an invaluable part of our lives. I don’t get 75 and 100 watt incandescents because they are cheap, but because they fulfill a need other bulbs cannot. And if the newer bulbs are truly better, I will switch my choice of bulbs without any government intervention needed.

    1. Right, I essentially agree with you, especially on point #3. My argument is that it’s not going to happen because keeping artificially cheap electricity around is a massive political priority for both parties – and very much anti free market.

      So, I’m suggesting the lesser of two evils is to nudge the market along by forcing a higher standard. I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.

      There are new incandescents of all sorts which meet the requirements. This nostalgia for the old bulbs is largely manufactured by media. Most people will just go to wal mart and buy what’s on the shelf, same as always.

  3. Even if these clowns fail in their effort to pull this new standard, they’ll still “win”. Why? When 2012 rolls around, these goons will blame Obama and cry bloody murder because you won’t be able to get crappy light bulbs any more.

    Enough Americans are dumb enough to believe this to make it affect elections.

    So it goes in politics today….

  4. “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.”

    I don’t agree with that statement at all. Govt. regulation is not required to keep the economy fair or forward thinking, it is only necessary perhaps, to deter criminal activity.

    Who gives the definition of fair? I pay more taxes than others, is that fair? People pay more taxes than me, is that fair?

    It only seems fashionable to disagree with the govt. because so many Americans are currently opposed to almost everything this adminstration, and congress, is doing. Furthermore, it has nothing to do with whether or not the idea is good, it has to do with whether or not the law is constitutional…which obviously you don’t care about.

    1. I agree with the sentiments that less government regulation, in general, is good. But I could easily argue that the current situation is “unfair” to producers of more efficient appliances because electricity is priced artificially low – also caused by government meddling, in this case failure to force polluters (ie, criminal activity) to pay the true cost of their pollution.

      So I’m arguing in favor of a more realistic, lesser of two evils approach. I wish it were not needed.

      More importantly, as someone articulated above, the only reason this repeal has gone to congress (where it will fail) is so that republicans can make a political point in 2012 about how those “communist democrats” refuse to allow you to change your own lightbulbs. This is especially hilarious given that it was republican legislation to begin with. It’s all very strategic, and very, very sleezy.

  5. It is in efffect a BAN
    – and that includes all those New Incandescents…

    All known or recently announced Incandescents will effectively be
    banned before 2020,
    see the 2007 Energy Act, Second Phase
    45 lumen per watt minimum specification, which no incandescent can meet,
    and which the profit-seeking CFL-pushing manufacturers behind the ban
    would be unlikely to pursue anyway.
    The EIA (see press releases) also confirm that any lamp on the market
    “will have to be as efficient as CFLs” by such time.

    MORE: The basic intent of replacing incandescent technology is also
    made clear in section 321 of the Act:
    “The Secretary of Energy shall report to Congress on the time frame
    for commercialization of lighting to REPLACE incandescent AND halogen
    incandescent lamp technology”
    (Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007/Title III/Subtitle B/Section 321)
    Note “replace” not “improve”
    Maybe a plot after all :-)

    More on the actual regulations

  6. The supposed ENERGY savings are also not there….

    (only c2% grid electricity savings, see the DOE etc data ),
    and even they were,
    there are much better and more relevant energy savings in Electricity
    Generation and Grid Distribution as well as Consumption, as described
    on the website.

  7. … and Consumers as a whole will hardly save MONEY
    – regardless of what the energy savings are.

    That is not just in having to pay more for the light bulbs as an
    initial cost
    (or being forced to pay for them, via taxpayer CFL programs)

    – but also because electricity companies are being taxpayer subsidised
    or allowed to raise Bill rates to compensate for any reduced
    electricity use, as already seen both federally and in California,
    Ohio etc, and before them in the UK and other European countries

  8. RE “I can sympathize with the free market argument”

    Good: Much better than Regulation on safe-to-use products.

    It doubly promotes Energy Efficiency:
    Under pressure of competition, utilities as well as manufacturers THEMSELVES want keep down their own energy costs as much as possible, in trying to deliver electricity and electrical products at low competitive prices.

    Secondly, competition for customers pushes manufacturers into market research of what people actually want, which has always included energy saving products:

    Notice that energy saving light bulbs that meet the standards have already been delivered by free markets when the standards are being drawn up – or people might literally be left in the dark!

    Manufacturers of batteries, washing up liquids etc imaginatively advertise and sell “expensive products that save you money in the long run”.
    So can light bulb manufacturers, instead of looking for easy bans on popular cheap unprofitable alternatives.

    New startups making relevant lighting can be helped to the market,
    although without continuing subsidies (as happens now in terms of retail sales, subsidised utility CFL handouts etc)

    Of course, all the marketing in the world won’t maintain sales if the product is poor at a given price
    – but, again, that hardly justifies banning the preferred alternatives!

  9. All I know for certain is that the CFL light bulb is hazardous to people with some health conditions, such as Lupus. Our freedom to choose has to remain intact for many crucial reasons, the important side effects to our health is only one. -JRL

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