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Attack of the dim bulbs (a dismayingly ongoing series)

Dan Farber, professor of law | March 23, 2012

“And the government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh yeah, Obama’s regulators actually did just that.”

That was Governor Romney on March 19.  I hope he was more careful with the facts when he worked for Bain. If not, he would have cost lost a lot of money, not to mention the liability risks.

Here’s what the Washington Post fact-checker says about Romney’s statement:

 It’s a cheap political shot for Romney to blame “Obama’s regulators” for a proposal that was signed into law by a Republican president and was broadly supported at the time. Moreover, we don’t see how higher efficiency standards translates into a “ban,” especially when light manufacturers have embraced the new standards.

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) have a number of features that make them convenient political symbols:

  • CFLs provide a (literally) visible example of change, with different shape and illumination than conventional bulbs. Other regulations may be much more important targets, but it’s hard to visualize banking rules or health insurance requirements.
  • CFLs appear to cost more (although they are actually cheaper in the end because of lower energy use). Ironically, the greatest strength of the regulation is also its greatest political weakness. One of the main reasons for the regulation is that people have trouble seeing that an immediate cash outlay pays for itself over time.  People who have trouble making this tradeoff as consumers have the same difficulty making it as voters.
  • Lighting is a feature of everyday life, encountered frequently by almost everyone.  Thus, there are many reminders of the issue.
  • CFLs replace a familiar object — one that has come to represent the era of American industrial strength and inventiveness. Thus Romney’s invocation of Thomas Edison.
  • CFLs remind older Americans in particular that the world is changing in ways they may not like. No doubt there are some who suspect that CFLs are secretly manufactured in Kenya!

CFLs also illustrate why conservatives have given up on cost-benefit analysis.  The economics strongly favor CFLs, which shows that cost-benefit analysis is an unreliable tool if your goal is to eliminate all government regulation, however well justified that regulation may be in particular cases.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Attack of the dim bulbs (a dismayingly ongoing series)

  1. wow, Peter Dublin is a prodigeous troll, posting literally the same thing on every CFL or energy efficiency post he can find. amazing actually.

    • Thanks Sean
      Troll sounds fine to me, having a Scandinavian background.
      Agreed though that the commenting here got a bit extensive – could simply link to sources.
      Still, would also be interesting to know if you have anything more constructive to add here – at least I comment on the issue, no? 😉

  2. (continued)

    RE “Moreover, we don’t see how higher efficiency standards translates into a “ban,” especially when light manufacturers have embraced the new standards.”

    1. Well, why did manufacturers welcome being told what they can or can’t make and sell?
    Would you or I welcome it?
    If so, why?

    The profit motive in their involvement is covered on, with multiple references, including 2011 US book “I Light Bulb” by MP Leahy and Howard Brandston, the latter directly involved with the NEMA negotiators in the 2007 ban and explaining what happened.

    2. It is a “ban”,
    not just because not allowing products that don’t meet certain standards obviously bans them,
    but also effectively on incandescent technology
    Phase 2 of EISA which follows after 2014 has 45 lumen per W as end regulation, which no known incandescent can reach including touted 2012 halogens (typically 20-22 lumen per W).
    Besides, the halogen replacements have different light quality etc and
    cost much more for marginal savings, which is why neither consumers or
    politicians like them (no “Halogen replacement programs” as with
    Of course, given the profit motive by manufacturers seeking the ban, they would be unlikely to work more on incandescents anyway (in the EU the promised Philips Ecosaver halogen development was quietly shelved
    once the ban was in place. Ban achieved = job done).

    USA Standards and exceptions,
    and 10 local state bills repealing federal light bulb laws
    (legislated Texas June 2011, South Carolina bill due for Gov Nikki Haley for signing)

  3. (continued)

    Besides, the personal choice of what lighting to use = not waste of energy,
    especially when freely paid for and there is no shortage, given many future alternative (and environmentally friendly) sources.
    (Of course if there was an electricity shortage, price rise would lead to increased energy efficient purchases anyway, without regulations, as with cars in the 1970’s)
    Unnecessarily leaving lighting on = waste of energy.

    A 13 point summary of the arguments used to defend light bulb regulations, and reference reasons linked to official data why they don’t hold up:
    The Deception behind banning Light Bulbs

  4. All lighting has advantages.
    None should be banned.

    Yes, Republicans run up scare stories about CFLs,
    but that does not mean they are wrong about the regulations themselves:
    Those of us who are for energy savings,
    can nonetheless see why light bulb regulations are wrong.

    To begin with one should be clear about the token nature of the regulations, wherever they are coming from:
    On US Dept of Energy’s own stats and surveys, a fraction of 1% of US energy is saved and around 1% of grid electricity
    with much more relevant generation, grid and alternative consumption savings.

    This also applies to supposed personal savings,
    ie that ignores the power factor of common CFLs (twice the energy used at the power plant to what your meter suggests), incandescent heat benefit for most users, little or no savings with rarely used bulbs in 45-light households etc.
    Conversely it ignores the rate rises and taxpayer compensation of utilities with sales decrease expectation – not least in California


  5. Dan, when my wife and I graduated from Cal in the 60s we thought it was the best of times (Civil Rights were finally improving again, but the 1972 ERA for women is still not ratified) and the worst of times (Vietnam proved Ike’s 1961 Farewell Address was right the most hellacious way possible, except there was one miracle that our world leaders didn’t produce nuclear holocaust during the Cold War when we did bomb shelter practice all over America).

    Back then I most naively thought that things couldn’t possibly get worse and the world seemed to have much better future possibilities for perpetuation of the human race with peace on earth at last because of the U.N, but the real world continued to devolve because the U.N. is now a worst case scenario failure since international politicians are just as avaricious and Us vs Them destructive as national politicians.

    So as you and your academic colleagues document with increasing frequency our newest generation of oligarchs have not really improved since their days in ancient Greece when they didn’t give a damn about the demos who were forced to revolt from time to time just to keep from becoming extinct. Thus the biggest question is whether We The People demos of today can actually keep from failing to restore government of, by and for We The People one more time by taking over congress in 2012, which seems like our last chance to prevent tipping point disasters for the human race.

    So the truth is that we haven’t evolved morally since our first democracy except that the propagation of mendacious, deranged, dim bulb rants truly is at the speed of light with 24/7/365 propaganda that would make Goebbels proud of those politicians who follow in his footsteps. Jesus must wonder if enough people really understand his Sermon on the Mount enough to actually care to practice the Golden Rule whether they are Christians or not.

    Thus our only remaining hope appears to be for preeminent Berkeley professors and scholars to achieve your ultimate destiny of educational greatness to save the human race, by producing a true world leaders once again like FDR and Churchill in time before the power goes out even for dim bulbs.

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