If you have not caught Virginia Postrel in her new columnist gig at Bloomberg View, here’s a good chance, for Virginia’s column today is about U.S. federal light bulb regulation; both Mike and I have written about light bulb technology and the EISA 2007 “performance standard” that is leading to the disappearance of the 100-watt incandescent bulb from the market.
Virginia’s column addresses both the quality/aesthetics issues and the economic flaws of technology mandates, concluding that federal light bulb policy is not an efficient way to reduce electricity use. Instead, in bootlegger-and-baptist fashion:
… the activists offended by the public’s presumed wastefulness took a more direct approach. They joined forces with the big bulb producers, who had an interest in replacing low-margin commodities with high-margin specialty wares, and, with help from Congress and President George W. Bush, banned the bulbs people prefer.
It was an inside job. Neither ordinary consumers nor even organized interior designers had a say. Lawmakers buried the ban in the 300-plus pages of the 2007 energy bill, and very few talked about it in public. It was crony capitalism with a touch of green.
After a thorough discussion of the disappointing quality features of CFLs — poor light quality, lags in starting, shorter-than-advertised life spans (but not enough discussion of the lack of dimmability, which is my primary complaint), Virginia analyzes how this technology mandate fails to allow for consumer autonomy and choice in how to control and manage their own electricity use:
But banning light bulbs is one of the least efficient ways imaginable to attack those problems [air pollution or CO2 emissions]. A lamp using power from a clean source is treated the same as a lamp using power from a dirty source. A ban gives electricity producers no incentive to reduce emissions.
Nor does it allow households to make choices about how best to conserve electricity. A well-designed policy would allow different people to make different tradeoffs among different uses to produce the most happiness (“utility” in econ-speak) for a given amount of power. Maybe I want to burn a lot of incandescent bulbs but dry my clothes outdoors and keep the air conditioner off. Maybe I want to read by warm golden light instead of watching a giant plasma TV.
This. This is a large source of aggravation with regulation more generally, as well as a large source of the unintended consequences that inevitably accompany such regulation. The “government knows best” attitude that drills down too far and does not target the ultimate objective, which is reducing electricity use, both fails to deliver on its goal and is patronizing and condescending in the bargain. That’s a lose-lose policy … for everyone except for those big bulb producers who are the beneficiaries of this legislation.