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Our God-given light bulbs

I hesitate to suggest that the nation may have turned a corner, but it does seem that we reached a significant point last week: the discovery of a measure too stupid to pass the United States House of Representatives.

The measure was an attempt to repeal a law, passed in 2007, under a Republican administration, requiring light bulbs to be 30 percent more energy efficient as of 2012. The law, thought to be innocuous during the benign years of George W. Bush’s administration (Did I just say that?) has been attacked by tea party types as a nanny state attempt to take away our precious incandescent light bulbs.

A little while ago, the lights in the newsroom flickered as The Sun’s generator kicked in, as it has done every afternoon this week to reduce strain on the electricity supply as the temperatures approach 100. In a few hours, toward evening, the lights will flicker again as we return to the grid.

The electricity grid is under strain, with the demand for lighting and air conditioning and power for computers and other devices. Some of that demand is for traditional incandescent bulbs, which consume more energy than fluorescent and LED bulbs, and waste most of it as heat.

In 2007, the Congress, thinking it a good thing to conserve energy, passed that law to promote the general welfare. The law has had the happy effect of encouraging manufacturers to produce improved models of fluorescent and LED bulbs, producing more satisfactory light , reducing energy demand, and—though the new bulbs are initially more expensive—saving the consumer money. This is the measure represented as a palpable threat to our freedoms.

That the House declined to repeal it hints at a faint breath of sanity.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:10 PM | | Comments (32)
        

Comments

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." --Mark Twain, unpublished paper

"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." --Mark Twain, _Following the Equator_

It's a good thing that air conditioning isn't a luxury like incandescent light bulbs. Man it sure would be a shame if that got taken out of your personal residence or place of work by a Republican administration.

I'm envisioning a bumper sticker that includes the words "from my cold dead hands."

As H.L. Mencken said, "Congress consists of, more or less, one third scoundrels; two thirds, more or less, idiotsessuma hakauu; and more or less, three thirds poltroons."

There's a "How many Republicans does it take" joke in there, but I won't be the one to make it.

Actually, I do recall some complaining in 2007 about that "innocuous" law. And just in time for the 2012 elections, you're going to hear a lot more complaining once incandescent bulbs are no longer available. At least Republicans can say they tried to undo their mistake. As for the rest of you, good luck with that "We did it for your own good" argument.

Tenderfoot,

I think the joke begins,

How many Tea Party members does it take to screw up a light bulb?

I await replies.

I care not who passes laws telling me what kind of light bulbs - ugly though they are -to buy or how much water may reside in my toilet bowl at any one time. Clearly those voting for such bills never changed a light bulb or cleaned a toilet in his life. I can just imagine the howls from the Electorate when air conditioning is regulated - especially on days rather like this one. Except the Capitol building would of course be exempt.

Wouldn't Thomas Edison be disappointed if he knew that today's incandescent lightbulb isn't much differnet from his?

Seriously though, there was a somewhat recent article in the Sun describing how fluorescent light bulbs have really grown up in the last few years.

And they have. When they were new to us, they were expensive, a bit fragile and hard to find (we bought only one or two from Ikea White Marsh). The light they discharged was flickery, and, let's be honest, rather cold and ugly. At the time, the wisdom advised against reading in it.

But this is now. The technology really has grown up. You can now read comfortably in soft, warm fluorescent light. They offer a vastly improved ratio of light to heat (signal to noise). They cost less than one dollar each, when you buy the ones that leverage Chinese mass-production with big American boxes.

So while there will remain places in your home for incandescent light, here's to the modern fluorescent light bulb.

Just think. As good as they are, they're still the middle step between incandescents and LEDs.

"Wouldn't Thomas Edison be disappointed if he knew that today's incandescent lightbulb isn't much differnet from his?"

Disappointed? Really? I suspect he would be delighted. (So to speak.) I'm sure he would be excited by fluorescent bulbs too.

"Clearly those voting for such bills never changed a light bulb or cleaned a toilet in [their lives]. I can just imagine the howls from the Electorate when air conditioning is regulated - especially on days rather like this one. Except the Capitol building would of course be exempt."

Patricia, while I think that I can defend fluorescent light bulbs and lower-volume commodes, I still see your (Libertarian?) point, and it's a good one, though I don't have a name for it.

An example of the phenomenon happened just this week, not that far away. The decision to build the future Metro Silver Line station near, rather than beneath Washington DC International John Foster Dulles Airport was made by people who will be dropped off from a motor car, right at the front doors of the terminal.

As to the "for your own good" argument, I understand the impulse, not limited to conservatives, to cast everything in purely individualistic terms, but I rather think that the law was originally enacted for the good of the country. I did say "common welfare," didn't I? That thing that the Constitution talks about?

Anyone who wants to argue that wasting energy rather than conserving it promotes the general welfare, I'm willing to hear the argument.

Debating light bulbs, you say?

Yes, because an issue such as this far outweighs the other issues facing us today.

Thank you, Congress, for keeping things in perspective.

John, if it's true that manufacturers "[have produced] improved models of fluorescent and LED bulbs, producing more satisfactory light , reducing energy demand, and—though the new bulbs are initially more expensive—saving the consumer money." Then why do we need a law to ensure their production? Wouldn't these obvious benefits increase consumer demand and give plenty of incentive to producers?

And I appreciate your attempt to justify this kind of micro-managerial tinkering with our "free" market by appealing to the Constitution, but you are appealing to the preamble, which lays a general principle that is fleshed out specifically in the document itself. Do you really believe that Congress should have the power to make any law that "provides for the general welfare?" If so, who gets to decide what constitutes the "general welfare?" Congress itself, I suppose? Thus our government is no longer limited by the Constitution, but by its own definition of "welfare." Scary.

>>Wouldn't these obvious benefits increase consumer demand and give plenty of incentive to producers?<<

Not necessarily. Consumers aren't nearly as rational as free marketers sometimes insist.

Finding the proper balance between short-term desires of individuals and long-term general welfare will always be a struggle. Even defining those terms is an endless debate.

I suppose that, in the majestic workings of the free market among a rational populace, over time the marketers of contaminated beef would go out of business as people chose not to die, and marketers of bogus drugs would also be subject to automatic correction.

The libertarian Mr. Mencken was pleased that quacks would purify the population because they "take the botched and speed them on to bliss eternal."

And yet some of us week nanny-state liberals would still like to see some occasional pieces of legislation enacted for the common good.

Isn't it heartening, though, after the past year, to know that there are still those who believe in the perfect efficiency and benevolence of the market.

Yes, "majestic workings of the free market" and "perfect efficiency and benevolence of the market." Such perceptive insights into my argument. You've got my perspective down pat, alright.

Can anyone direct me to a blog where I can engage in a sensible discussion?

>>Consumers aren't nearly as rational as free marketers sometimes insist. <<

True, Wayne C.

As a nanny-state ... conservative, I've struggled to come to terms with the fact that the tap water I drank when I was a CHILD gave me an incurable, extremely painful disease that I'll have to live with for the rest of my life.

The "consumers should be rational" argument is a bunch of bologne when said consumers lack education or capacity, and companies reject the high road when planning profits.

I am my own daily reminder that a little "common good" regulation could've gone a long way. Habits die hard, but bad habits die harder.

"And yet some of us week nanny-state liberals would still like to see some occasional pieces of legislation enacted for the common good."

Confused homonymous week and weak? You?

Picky: It's even more heartening that after the past 80 years, there are still those who believe in the altruism and benevolence of a government-controlled market.

John: Maybe it's just me, but it appears to be a stretch to compare meat-inspection laws with one that bans incandescent light bulbs, which, whatever their flaws, don't kill you. And at least with old-fashioned bulbs, you don't need to call in a Hazmat team when you break the darn things. All it's going to take is a couple of kids getting sick after breaking CFL bulbs, and the old-bulb ban will be repealed. Hopefully, the nation's landfills won't be drenched in mercury by then.

If you nanny-state champions reading this are as worried as they say about saving lives, why not outlaw cigarettes? Or better yet, outlaw booze. Yeah, that's it -- a national prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages! It would work wonders for the public good. Think of how much better off society would be! I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

I'm all in favor of conservation, but the new bulbs are not a perfect alternative to the old incandescents. As Gary K. points out, they are hazardous if they should break. And, I'm sorry, but I think they are ugly. How hard would it be to design a good-looking energy-saving bulb?

I think you're right, Dahlink, but the experience over here since we started phasing out incandescents is that there has been some design improvement in the new bulbs, and I would expect more to come rapidly - here's where the market really will do its job. In the past we were dozily satisfied with our light bulbs, even though they were hideously inefficient, and there was no incentive for manufacturers to do anything other than keep taking the profits. That's changed, and the incentive is now very much present.

Good to hear that, Picky--I'll continue to hold out for better design.

Gary K. wins this thread, hands down.

Please note that the bad is not on incandescent light bulbs, but on inefficient lightbulbs. Whoever builds a better incandescent bulb will find the world beating a path to his door.

Yes, you're right, of course, GaryK. We only need to worry about the things that might kill us right now, like contaminated meat. It's fine for the government to regulate THOSE things, because for heaven's sake, it's obvious that contaminated meat is bad.

But things like regulating appliances that needlessly consume excess energy - oh, that's just ridiculous. It's a victimless crime, wasting energy! It's not like, oh, the planet might warm up, the ice caps melt, and Baltimore be wiped off the face of the earth by the ensuing flood. Lightbulbs are harmless. The government has no business restricting my right to waste the earth's resources! If I want to waste energy, damnit, I will!

What could possibly go wrong?

Melissa Jane, your comments remind me of the Tragedy of the Commons. It's fine to pasture your flock or herd or whatever on the village commons along with everyone else as long as the grass isn't depleted. Too many sheep, goats or cattle, though, and soon there's no more commons (or at elast not a useable one). Village leaders took notice and started regulating use of the commons.

Some would say the same principles apply to natural resources.

Commons? Isn't that socialism? And regulating use? Isn't that governmental intrustion in the free market? That damn Obama.

That the Fed has decided that one kind of bulb will no longer be made and another, regardless of quality, will be made, is government taking away my choice. You liberals recall "choice?" Or does that apply only to abortion?

Here's a link to Home Depot's guide to choices among light bulbs. I think you'll find that cursing the darkness, or liberals, is not the sole option left to you.

http://ext.homedepot.com/shopping-tools/light-bulbs/index.html?&cm_sp=indoor_lighting-_-POD2-_-headline_link-_-light_bulb_finder

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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