Tag: light bulbs

Pielke’s Problem

I generally admire the work of Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist in the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. His new book on climate change is refreshingly honest and non-ideological, if a bit overly technophilic. His broader work offers the important insight that science alone cannot direct public policy, but rather it can only lay out possible results of different policy choices.

Given the quality of his work, I was disappointed by Pielke’s op-ed in today’s NYT defending Congress’s legislated obsolescence of the incandescent light bulb. He argues that government standard-setting is an important contribution to human welfare, and the light bulb standard is just part of that standard-setting (though he does suggest some minor policy tweaks to allow limited future availability of incandescents). 

To justify his argument, Pielke points out the great benefit of government-established standard measures, as well as quality standards:

Indeed, [in the United States of the late 19th century] the lack of standards for everything from weights and measures to electricity — even the gallon, for example, had eight definitions — threatened to overwhelm industry and consumers with a confusing array of incompatible choices.

This wasn’t the case everywhere. Germany’s standards agency, established in 1887, was busy setting rules for everything from the content of dyes to the process for making porcelain; other European countries soon followed suit. Higher-quality products, in turn, helped the growth in Germany’s trade exceed that of the United States in the 1890s.

America finally got its act together in 1894, when Congress standardized the meaning of what are today common scientific measures, including the ohm, the volt, the watt and the henry, in line with international metrics. And, in 1901, the United States became the last major economic power to establish an agency to set technological standards.

 Alas, this argument doesn’t support Pielke’s light bulb standard.

The weights-and-measures and product standards that he cites are examples of government response to market failures—instances where private action is unable to reach efficient results. Concerning weights and measures, a type of market failure known as the collective action problem can make it difficult to establish standard measures privately. Getting everyone to agree can be like herding cats, and there is ample incentive to secretly defect from that standard — e.g., a gas station would love to sell you a 120-ounce “gallon” that you assume is a standard 128 ounces. (OTOH, there are plenty of examples of private action overcoming this problem, such as the standardization of railroad track gauges in the late 19th century.) Likewise, quality standards can be understood as a response to a kind of market failure known as the information asymmetry problem— e.g., a producer of low-quality goods may knowingly try to pass them off as high-quality goods. (Again, there are plenty of examples of private action overcoming this problem.)

As libertarians, we recognize that there are market failures, and that government can sometimes mitigate them. (That’s why we’re not anarchists.) Also as libertarians, we recognize that government intervention can result in outcomes even less efficient than the original market failure. (That’s why we’re not run-of-the-mill Democrats or Republicans.)

But where is the market failure with incandescent bulbs? After nearly 125 years of use, people know the drawbacks and advantages of incandescents—that they use more electricity than other types of bulbs and have a shorter lifespan, but they cost very little and work much better in certain applications—from dimmer switches to Easy-Bake Ovens—than other bulbs. Besides, CFL bulbs were widely available before Congress’s 2007 legislation, and LED lights were already in the R&D pipeline.

Perhaps Pielke would argue that there is a market failure with incandescents: the negative externality of air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. But incandescent lighting is only one of many, many electricity-using devices, and electricity generation is just one of many, many sources of air pollution. So why the focus on just this one externality source instead of advocating a policy that broadly addresses emissions? And why devote his op-ed to discussing technology standards, and make no mention of air pollution?

Preparing for Life as a Light Bulb Black Marketeer

 I’ve decided the time has come to become an entrepreneur – as a black market operator.

Come next January, 100-watt incandescent light bulbs will be illegal, courtesy of Congress and President George W. Bush.  Lower wattages will be banned the following year.  As usual, politicians in Washington believe they know best and are determined to inconvenience the public in the name of saving energy.

No matter that incandescent lights offer a softer light and are a better value than fluorescent bulbs if turned on only briefly.  And no matter that breaking a fluorescent light will spill mercury, creating what in any other circumstance would be considered to be a biohazard.

There are other consequences of the coming prohibition.  Notes Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner:

  • Citing this law, GE has closed its incandescent light plant in Virginia. For the coming years, while they’re still legal, Americans will be buying their GE incandescents from Mexico. This probably means less efficient manufacturing and more shipping.
  • GE makes its CFLs in China. The factories are likely dirtier and less efficient, and certainly there will be more shipping costs.
  • Because of the warm-up time for CFLs and the knowledge that they use less energy, people are more likely to leave them on for longer, I imagine.
  • In northern latitudes, incandescents’ inefficiency is not wasted. Think about it: in Alaska, summer nights are very short and winter nights are very long. That means a vast majority of light-bulb time happens in the winter. The incandescents waste energy in the form of heat, but if it’s cold, that added heat slightly reduces your need to use a furnace.
Of course, it’s hard to decide how many bulbs to buy.  What would be a lifetime supply of 100 watt lights?

And why stop there?  I could become an incandescent bulb pusher once the prohibition takes effect.  I don’t think drug prohibition makes any sense, but I have no desire to get into that market.  Customers and competitors are an ugly lot and I really don’t want to go to prison.  But selling light bulbs – now there’s something I could do!

I’d be even happier, however, if the new Congress dropped the coming prohibition.  Fluorescent bulbs often are a wise choice, but not always.  A supposedly free society should leave at least a few choices to people – like deciding which light bulbs to use.