The enforced elimination of the traditional incandescent light bulb by Congress has been used repeatedly by several commentators as a classic example of crony capitalism at work. They missed the most important point: the free market has provided alternatives that are largely neutralizing the state’s mandates.
The story began with efforts by companies like GE, Sylvania, and Phillips conspiring with green environmental groups to pressure Congress into banning incandescents so that consumers would be forced to purchase more efficient but more expensive and higher profit alternatives that they make, such as LED (light emitting diode) bulbs, halogens, and CFLs (compact fluorescent lights – those with the curly tops).
They didn’t really want or need an outright ban, just a mandate that bulbs would have to be slightly more efficient – just enough more so that the present ubiquitous invention by Edison wouldn’t be able to meet it. And the mandate was staged in so the consumer wouldn’t squirm too much at having his alternatives eliminated and being forced to pay more for those that remained. On January 1st the final step – banning 40s, 60s, and 75s – took place.
The New York Times got into the act, surprisingly, pointing out that Phillips – the huge Dutch conglomerate that makes LEDs – formed a “coalition” (the Times’ word) with a number of environmental groups also seeking limits on incandescents (among other things), including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Said the head of Phillips’ “strategic sustainability initiatives,” Harry Verhaar:
We felt that we needed to make a call and show that the best-known lighting technology, the incandescent light bulb, is at the end of its lifetime.
In that single phrase, the hubris and crony-capitalist mentality is on full display: we know better than consumers do about what’s best for them. We get to decide where the market is headed. We need to “make the call.” Besides, we have the latest technology to replace the incandescents. Sure, they’ll cost more, but think of the savings! And we could sure use a boost to our bottom line, but that’s only an afterthought. Besides, we tried to persuade the consuming public that Edison’s invention is inefficient and expensive to operate and that our new, more expensive technology is really going to save them big bucks over time. But they just don’t listen. They keep buying incandescents, and we keep having to make do with the tiniest of profit margins. So we really were forced to hook up with those greens to get the job done.
The math certainly is persuasive: a 60-watt light bulb costs, for example, around $2 or so, but burns up more than $7 of electricity every year and only lasts a year and a half under normal usage before burning out, whereas an LED, which costs $13, burns just $1.57 of electricity in a year, and lasts more than five years. Think of the savings!
Unfortunately, the consumer doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that most of the energy used in incandescents is turned to heat, not light. He doesn’t care that they last only between 750 hours and 2,000 hours. And so, three quarters of the four billion light bulb sockets in the US are still filled, and being refilled, with incandescents. Something had to be done!
The lobbying efforts began in earnest, with many politicians “caving” after learning that the industry backed the mandates, and if they think it’s good, then why not? It was a classic case of “bootleggers and Baptists” coming together to present an irresistible case to waffling moderates in the House and Senate. Congressman Fred Upton said he supported the bill because it couldn’t be that bad “if the industry supported it.” Congressman Steny Hoyer said he voted for it because “the standards are supported by the lightbulb industry.”
Those efforts birthed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, a mess of pottage designed allegedly “to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security … to increase the efficiency of products [like light bulbs]….” Of course, government can do no such thing, only the free market can do that. But no matter: the bill passed the House 264-163 and the Senate 65-27, and George Bush, the great environmentalist, signed it into law in December, 2007.
The new law wasn’t just at attack on light bulbs, but affected vehicle fuel economy and technology, increased biofuel production, enforced appliance efficiency, required federal buildings to use Energy Star products, and so on.
But it also was filled with loopholes – just the thing that the free market loves to explore to create options, alternatives, and workarounds so that consumers can obtain what they really want after all. The law didn’t apply to appliance light bulbs, “rough service” light bulbs, colored Christmas tree lights, plant lights, 3-way lights, stage lighting, candelabra lights, outdoor post lights, and nightlights as well as any bulbs less than 40 watts or more than 100.
Entrepreneurs went to work. A company called Advanced Lighting Technologies recently announced is “2X Bulb” which appears identical to Edison’s invention, but which would have made him envious: it’s twice as efficient as the 2007 law demands, and is available at prices marginally higher than those disappearing from the shelves.
The market is also putting pressure on CFLs, partly because people don’t like them (they contain mercury, they don’t handle dimmer switches well, and they don’t last as long as advertised), and partly because the prices of LED lights are dropping. The irony is clear: the market, in its wisdom, is replacing the replacements!
The market is also providing alternative sources for those consumers who still want to buy incandescent light bulbs in the familiar wattages. They are available, in any quantity, on eBay and at 1000Bulbs.com. When last checked, they were going for under a dollar, and much less in quantity. Just the thing for preppers and stockpilers.
So the lesson from the incandescent light bulb isn’t the crony capitalist one. It’s the one that the free market teaches every time. It will somehow, some way, find a way to satisfy the consumer.
The New York Times: Bulb In, Bulb Out
The math: The incandescent light bulb isn’t dead
Rasmussen Reports: 72% Don’t Want Feds Changing Their Light Bulbs
CNN’s obituary: RIP, light bulb