Virginia Postrel on Light Bulbs

Lynne Kiesling

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.

7 thoughts on “Virginia Postrel on Light Bulbs

  1. An Inquiry Into The Nature And Causes Of The Wealth Of Nations;
    By Adam Smith, LL.D. and F.R.S. of London And Edinburgh:
    Formerly Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University Of Glasgow
    Edinburgh: 1776

    BOOK II. Of the Nature, Accumulation, and Employment Of Stock.

    CHAPTER III. Of the Accumulation of Capital, Or Of Productive and
    Unproductive Labour.

    But though the profusion of government must, undoubtedly, have retarded the natural progress of England towards wealth and improvement, it has not been able to stop it. The annual produce of its land and labour is, undoubtedly, much greater at present than it was either at the Restoration or at the Revolution. The capital, therefore, annually employed in cultivating this land, and in maintaining this labour, must likewise be much greater. In the midst of all the exactions of government, this capital has been silently and gradually accumulated by the private frugality and good conduct of individuals, by their universal, continual, and uninterrupted effort to better their own condition. It is this effort, protected by law and allowed by liberty to exert itself in the manner that is most advantageous, which has maintained the progress of England towards opulence and improvement in almost all former times, and which, it is to be hoped, will do so in all future times. England, however, as it has never been blessed with a very parsimonious government, so parsimony has at no time been the characteristical virtue of its inhabitants. It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.

  2. The other fallacy, I would suggest, is that the heat generated by incandescent bulbs is, by definition, wasteful. I live in Canada where there is a need for continuous heat from probably the beginning of October to the end of April and, depending on the year, a need for intermittent heat for at least another couple of weeks in both spring and fall. We have a good-sized old house. Under those circumstances, the heat generated by incandescent bulbs reduces the need for furnace-generated heat. In addition, incandescent bulbs produce the heat where the humans are (i.e., in those rooms where the lights are on), allowing the overall temperature in the house to be kept lower. Removing the heat generated by incandescent bulbs will require the whole house to be kept warmer and for the heat to be generated by natural gas rather than by, at least in part, hydroelectric power.

    In the summer, when the heat is not needed, one of course could change incandescent bulbs for CFLs but not coincidentally, since the days are longer, the need for artificial lighting of any kind goes down. Plus we don’t have air conditioning, so mitigating of the heat generated by incandescent bulbs does not generally lead to consumption of more electricity. We open windows (some people still do that). Speaking of heat generated as a byproduct of electrical devices, my computer generates vast amounts of heat.

    We have one car. Neither my wife nor I use it for commuting. I work at home. My wife uses public transit. We don’t have air conditioning. We use a push lawnmower. We don’t have leaf blowers, etc. etc. We don’t do any of this out of concern for the environment but out of personal preference. But regardless, in a world of multi-car commuting households, lots of air travel for business and pleasure, ubiquitous air conditioning, continuous TV/computer/smartphone use and power lawnmowers everywhere, I am told I can’t use incandescent bulbs? Beyond ridiculous.

    The bootleggers included, of course, government itself because it is yet one more relatively minor, ultimately arbitrary and deeply invasive government intrusion. The arbitrariness and triviality of it are features from the state’s perspective, not bugs. The message is that no aspect of life is too trivial for the government to regulate and dictate. The fact that it makes no sense is likewise part of the charm of it for the statists. Again, the message here is that the state will pass even arbitrary laws if it so wishes. Commanding obedience to laws that everyone recognizes as reasonable is no big deal. However, commanding submission to laws that are obviously arbitrary and invasive – now that’s power worth having. The bulb ban is the home version of the TSA grope.

    The bulb thing has been propagandized beautifully of course. People can tell themselves that they are officially sanctioned “good” people, holding the correct views and paying appropriate homage to Gaia, while at the same time occupying a carbon footprint only slightly smaller than Al Gore’s.

    The great thing about the environmental file for government is that it provides a pretext for regulating basically any human activity it wishes, while at the same time masquerading as the high priests of the new animism. As a result, we now have toilets that don’t work and we wash and sort our garbage so that the garbage police will do us the honour of removing it in exchange for the vast taxes we pay. The humiliation of once free people is complete.

  3. not to mention that the greenie Baptists side once again got taken for a ride, given the environmentally pernicious nature of the CFC bulbs, not divulged until after the ban took place. I live in So. Fl, so use of CFC’s looked like a good thing, saving a/c costs, until I found out I would have to make a special trip to the dump to dispose of the dead ones. Then there was the danger if they broke….Now greenies are trying to push conversion to LED’s – wonder what the downside is there, other than the unpleasant light color.

  4. I am wondering whether the baptists and bootleggers thing really holds in the case of environmental regulation – it’s more like and bootleggers and bootleggers.

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