The Dim World of Light Bulb Politics

In 2007, major lighting manufacturers worked with Congress to craft new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs. They were worried that states would adopt 50 separate standards and they knew that a 40-year old technology existed to make better incandescent light bulbs -- ones that were 28 percent more efficient and emitted less waste heat.

Why didn't these manufacturers use this technology before? In their minds, there was no financially compelling reason to switch. Consumers were buying bulbs with the old technology.

When widespread concern about energy waste caused states to start passing light bulb efficiency standards, the manufacturers sought a uniform national standard and got it. The provision was not controversial. It passed with an overwhelming bi-partisan majority and was promptly signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The manufacturers then spent millions of dollars retooling their operations to produce the new, improved incandescent bulbs, which produce exactly the same lighting qualities as the old bulbs, look the same, dim the same, last longer, save energy, and provide a better value for consumers.

Sounds pretty good, huh? Thomas Edison would have been pleased.

It was viewed in a different light by those living in the alternate universe of libertarian radicalism, however. Last year, in advance of the January 2012 start date for standards to take effect, they spread the false rumor that the 100-watt incandescent bulb was being banned and that people would be forced to switch to compact fluorescent bulbs. They even snookered some reputable media outlets.

Four months after the deadline has come and gone, and the new incandescent bulbs are on the shelves at their local Home Depot, these light bulb cranks continue to spread lies about a supposed bulb ban. Some in Congress do so, even after manufacturers have shown them that the new incandescent bulbs are identical in form and function to the old bulbs. No squiggly tubes, no weird color hues, no dim start-up, no dimming problems, no mercury, same amount and quality of light, but using just 72 watts of electricity instead of 100.

These radicals have latched onto light bulb and appliance efficiency standards as a symbol of government overreach. They claim such standards limit consumer choice.

Really, this is the best example they can come up with? The light bulb standards are the same type of common-sense efficiency benchmarks President Ronald Reagan signed into law for refrigerators, fluorescent lighting ballasts, and other appliances in the 1980s. How many people are wandering around their local appliance dealer pining for inefficient, Jimmy Carter-era refrigerators?

Still, even as you read this, we have lawmakers like Congressman Michael Burgess (R-TX) and Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) working to prohibit enforcing the law that established these lighting standards. They plan to offer amendments to upcoming appropriations bills that would do just that.

Apparently, Burgess, Enzi and others on this crusade are not concerned about the investments lighting manufacturers made in good faith over the past five years.

Does it matter to them that shady foreign manufacturers would exploit the loophole to flood the market with cheaply made, unreliable, energy-wasting bulbs?

Does it matter to them that doing favors for foreign fly-by-nights could result in fewer jobs for Americans who make components for the new bulbs?

Does it matter to them that shoddy foreign bulbs, which might cost 50 cents less than the high-quality American bulbs, would cost Americans more because of higher energy bills and shorter bulb life?

Perhaps their whacky Ayn Rand idolatry is more important to them than jobs, investments, and energy savings. In the name of libertarian dogma, they seek to chain Americans to inferior products and retard technological progress.

The real advance for freedom, prosperity, and consumer choice can be found in the innovative, solution-oriented actions of the major lighting manufacturers in 2007. By helping craft these new standards and getting better technology to the market, Americans can light their world for less money, improve our nation's energy position, and be better stewards of our precious natural resources.

We should dub the new, improved incandescent light bulbs "Freedom Bulbs" in honor of the entrepreneurial spirit and foresight that led to their development.

Yet the lighting manufacturers are not resting on their laurels. In a few years, the energy sipping, but costly, LED bulbs that are showing up on store shelves in increasing numbers will become much more affordable. These lights produce the same quality and amount of light as the old 100-watt bulbs but use less than 20 watts of electricity.

That is some serious, no-compromise, insurance against rising electricity costs.

It's practical conservatism at its best. As the great conservative author and theorist Russell Kirk once wrote: "There is nothing more conservative than conservation."

He was right. Conservation is smart, prudent and responsible. It safeguards the future of our children and grandchildren.

Kirk, whom Reagan referred to as "the prophet of American conservatism," also wisely pointed out that with freedom comes responsibility. Kirk said:

"Every right is married to a duty, every freedom owes a corresponding responsibility."

A radicalism that peddles freedom without responsibility and revels in the political promotion of carefree wastefulness is most certainly not conservative.

Of course, our government needs to be efficiently effective and we must prevent excessive bureaucracy and government overreach. Neither of those concerns is relevant, however, to common-sense energy efficiency standards, which drive necessary progress using the power of free markets.

Now that everyone can see that rumors of the incandescent bulb's demise were greatly exaggerated, it is time to let our elected officials know that dim-witted efforts to roll back or impede enforcement of the new lighting standards will carry a political price.

If our elected officials are willing to mislead the public and turn their backs on such easy energy savings, they are probably not capable of leading us to a brighter future.

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