Defending the Incandescent Light Bulb

Jim DiPeso, writing at The Daily Green, does not care much for Freedom Action’s campaign to overturn the impending ban on the incandescent light bulb. That’s fine, we certainly don’t expect everyone to agree or it wouldn’t have been banned in the first place. But he makes a number of questionable claims that are worth addressing, and includes unnecessary personal attacks.

To begin, he uses an analogy of a business deciding whether or not to fire a productive or unproductive worker, noting that it always makes sense to fire the unproductive worker. This is intuitive, but in this situation DiPeso trusts the business to make the decision on their own (he doesn’t propose a government agency dedicated to evaluating and firing unproductive private sector workers), yet isn’t convinced that consumers can make analogous decisions on their own (which bulb is better?) and need governmental decree. If the light bulbs truly are the same and save the consumer money, it seems that consumers will naturally transition towards CFLs.

Also a small quip — the Competitive Enterprise Institute is not a “hard-nosed voice of business.” CEI supports free markets and policies that allow for the myriad benefits of competitive market forces. It is widely acknowledged that General Electric played a major role in passing this legislation, which lowers choice and competition at the expense of consumers.

Moving on, DiPeso accuses Freedom Action of being disingenuous in calling the legislation a ban on incandescent light bulbs. The language is correct as is. The legislation was written to require quality standards for incandescents that are unobtainable in the short run, effectively banning the bulb. In the past, DiPeso has repeatedly referred to the ban as a “phase-out” (what would you call an involuntary phase-out forced upon you, other than a ban?) and written a blog post entitled: “Bulb Ban – Give me Incandescent Bulbs…or Give me Death.” So DiPeso has uncritically referred to the legislation as a ban in the past, yet feels free to accuse Freedom Action of lying. The reader can decide who is being dishonest.

He makes the point that these bulbs are more energy efficient and ceteris paribus will save you money in the long run if you don’t adjust your behavior. Few people refute this, though economists will point to Jevon’s Paradox, noting that improved efficiency does not guarantee a reduction in net energy usage (and historically, has not) — individuals will find other uses for their light as it is cheaper or might be less careful to turn lights off. Either way, DiPeso admits this incandescent ban will have a negligible effect on carbon dioxide emissions.

He points to a study where consumers were unable to tell the difference. I will point to Free Our Light’s Facebook page full of individuals who seem well aware of differences between incandescent light and CFL light, vastly preferring the light from an incandescent bulb. As mentioned above, if individuals cannot tell the difference between the lighting, and CFLs save money, the market will take care of this switch without government decree.

Finally, he gets to mercury. There is an enormous difference between mercury released into the air from electricity production and mercury released into a closed environment in your home where you have the potential to ingest the toxic chemical before it disperses. Tellingly, the EPA doesn’t offer guidance for mercury exposure during your everyday life, though it does offer guidance for CFL breakage in your own home (hint: evacuate).

From electricity production, mercury is released into the air, which is vast and allows the mercury to disperse to negligible amounts that the EPA has deemed safe for humans. Further proof that small amounts of mercury are okay: humans eat millions of pounds of tuna per year which is known to have small amounts of mercury in it — your body is capable of removing mercury from your system and you will suffer no damage assuming you don’t ingest too much too quickly (like if you were to break a CFL and inhale a few feet away from it).

Is the risk of mercury from a CFL large? No, of course not. But it is greater than zero, and some consumers may have risk preferences that would cause them to spend the extra money on incandescent bulbs to avoid this risk. In our opinion, they should have this right.

Finally, I will also note that in a previous blog post, DiPreso, as a conservative, understands the principle behind being angry over a ban that limits personal freedom and choice:

Nevertheless, I get what Bachmann is upset about. It’s a matter of principle. On the face of it, a federal government of limited and enumerated powers shouldn’t be reaching so deeply into the minutiae of our lives.

Note his understanding of principles (alternatively, the principle of opposing legislation enacted as crony capitalism) does not seem to apply when he disagrees with an organizations larger policy preferences.