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Of Light Bulbs and Liberty -- and Lunacy, Too

David Callahan

The Federal government has been regulating electrical products almost since electricity was invented. And, for decades, it has set energy efficiency standards for a variety of products -- from cars to air conditioners to refrigerators.

All of this is good for consumers. Collectively we save billions of dollars every year because the federal government has pushed GM to make cars that go further on a tank of gas and Carrier to make AC units that cool our homes for less money. As much as laissez-faire theorists tout the ability of markets to solve all problems, too many of us in the real world are too lazy to utilize "perfect information" when choosing consumer products. We don't stand at Home Depot with a calculator figuring out which washing machine is going to save us the most money over a five-year period. And even when we do the math, we often opt to pay a little less now then pay a lot less over an extended period.

In other words, we make dumb choices. I certainly do as a consumer. That's why many of us appreciate it when someone -- like, say, the government -- narrows down our options so we make better choices that will save us a bunch of money.

Regulating for efficiency has alway been controversial, but there were always plenty of Republicans who got that it made sense. George W. Bush may have disliked regulation, like other conservatives, but he didn't have a problem signing bipartisan legislation in 2007 that called for phasing in new higher efficiency standards for lightbulbs. After all, companies like GE were already at work on better lightbulbs and it was estimated that speeding up their adaptation could mean big savings in a country with four billion light sockets -- more than $12 billion a year.

Well, that was then. As the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right, all sorts of formerly mundane government functions are now being depicted as sinister plots against the common man. 

Hence, the "lightbulb war."

Last year, House Republicans sought to block implementation of the 2007 law, and stop the new efficiency standards from being enforced. As Politico reported in December:

Conservative groups and tea party favorites in the House, including GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, have accused the government of a heavy-handed attempt to ban incandescent bulbs and limit consumer freedom.

“This wasn’t a light bulb manufacturer to me; this was an issue of the fundamental freedom of the American people and one more area where the federal government was encroaching in a place where it didn’t belong,” said Texas Rep. Michael Burgess, who has backed multiple efforts to block the standards.

This campaign, like so many others from the right, pivoted on a distortion of the facts, with the lightbulb liberty crowd saying that the Feds were going to ban the beloved incandescent lightbulb, forcing all of us to live under the socialistic glare of fluorescent lighting. In fact, the law mandates no such thing. Incandescent bulbs are fine, as long as they meet the new standards -- and plenty of such bulbs already do, which you can learn by walking into any department store.

Another small problem with this great crusade for liberty and the American way is that lightbulb makers aren't on board. As Politico also reported:

Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them.

After spending four years and millions of dollars prepping for the new rules, businesses say pulling the plug now could cost them. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association has waged a lobbying campaign for more than a year to persuade the GOP to abandon the effort.

The light bulb war died down for a while, but now it's back. Representative Burgess is again introducing his legislation to block implementation of the "lightbulb ban."

I'm sure Burgess will score points with Tea Partiers, especially those that favor colonial-era garb, by standing up on behalf of yesterday's technology (maybe he can defend the VCR, too). But what about his constituents back in Texas? It's been estimated that consumers in the Lone Star State will save $1 billion a year when the new bulb standards take effect. Why is Burgess against that?